At Least For Now, It’s Advantage Naveen

As the Naveen Patnaik government completes three years of its fourth term in office, the point to ponder is whether it has done enough in these three years to lay the foundation for an unprecedented fifth successive innings. To put it another way, has the combined Opposition done enough to chisel away at the BJD’s support base to deny it that privilege?

Of course, there are still two years to go for the next Assembly elections – unless Naveen decides to spring a surprise, as he did in 2004, by advancing the polls. And two years is a long enough time to put any creaking wheels in the BJD juggernaut back into shape. But then the Opposition – the BJP, in particular – which is upbeat after a good show in the recent panchayat elections, also has the same length of time to drive the nail further in.

A lot has changed in the last one year – and it is not just the setback of sorts that the ruling party suffered in the panchayat elections. Around this time last year, Naveen was ruling supreme and his party and government were sitting pretty. No one gave the Opposition a ghost of a chance. The Congress, in any case, has been in a state of atrophy for far too long and there are little signs of a revival any time soon. Even the BJP looked listless, not knowing what to make of its Central leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often cozying up to Naveen Patnaik. Talks of a possible revival of the alliance between the two estranged partners kept doing the rounds despite Naveen and the BJD repeating their ‘equidistant to both Congress and BJP’ claim ad nauseam.

But not any more. The gloves are now well and truly off with the BJP going after Naveen and his party with a vengeance. In its conduct and utterances, the BJD too appears to have anointed the BJP as its main rival, a position that the Congress enjoyed for most of Naveen’s rule. Far from a BJD-BJP alliance, speculation has now gone to the other extreme of a possible BJD-Congress tie up – tacitly, if not overtly – to stop a rampaging BJP, cock-a-hoop after its spectacular victory in the high-stakes UP Assembly elections. If nothing else, the BJP national executive meet in Bhubaneswar, held soon after the victory in UP, has put at rest the dilemma of the average BJP worker on the ground, who was unsure till the other day whether his party leaders may break bread with Naveen once again. They now know for sure they have to go after the BJD with all the force at their command.

The BJP is understandably upbeat after the gigantic leap it took in the zila parishad election in February though it still finished second best. Much of the BJP’s supposed rise, of course, rests on hype rather than actual progress on the ground. But then politics is nothing if not a battle of public perception. At least for the moment, the BJP has succeeded in presenting itself as a credible alternative to the BJD.

But Naveen too is not sitting idle either. In his deeds and pronouncements since the debacle of sorts in the zila parishad elections, the wily BJD supremo has shown that he has realized he has a real battle on his hands. More importantly, he has demonstrated that he is game for a fight – both within the party and without. He is canny enough to realize that the BJD is not quite the force it was three years ago and it is hard to keep the flock together after 17 uninterrupted years in power. The public pronouncements of some party leaders may have created the impression that he is not in control of things anymore. But if the U-turn of Bhartruhari  Mahatab, whose statements and writings have embarrassed the BJD in the recent past, on Saturday is anything to go by, Naveen has a strategy up his sleeve to contain, if not suppress altogether, the disaffection in the party. As for the enemy without, the BJD chief has demonstrated that he can beat it at own game – as he did on the issue of the medical college in Baripada the other day.

The biggest thing going for the BJD, however, is the fact that there is no discernible anger, disaffection or disillusionment against Naveen. If anything, the BJD boss has reinvented himself – both as a person and a leader. He now comes across as a more benign, accessible and empathetic leader, who smiles more often than he groans, than he has ever done in his 17-year long stint as Chief Minister.

At least for now, it is advantage Naveen.