BJP losing the battle of perception on Mahanadi

By Sandeep Sahu

sandeep-sir-284x300It is now abundantly clear that the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government has a lot to explain about the way it has dealt with the projects already constructed or being constructed on the upper reaches of Mahanadi by the Chhattisgarh government. It initial attempt to play the innocent victim by feigning ignorance and accusing Chhattisgarh of not keeping it in the loop about these projects has already been proved to be a blatant lie. It is now conclusively proved that the Odisha government, for reasons best known to itself, had chosen to turn a blind eye to these projects for close to a decade.

Normally, this should have cost it dear in political terms and put the ruling party on the back foot given the centrality of the mighty Mahanadi in Odisha’s economy, society and cultural life. Conversely, as the party in power at the Centre and one aspiring to come to power in the state in 2019, the BJP should have been on the offensive.

But in an interesting role reversal, what one is witnessing instead is a belligerent BJD and a rather squeamish BJP. The reason: it is the party in power both at the Centre and in Chhattisgarh and hence is unable to take on either of them with the required degree of stridency for reasons of political expediency. In the process, it is losing the perception battle, inevitably appearing to be more on the side of Chhattisgarh than on the side of Odisha.

In a way, this is a perennial problem with the two major national parties. During the UPA rule, the Congress party in the state was in the same predicament that the BJP finds itself in now. On important issues like Polavaram, the Posco project and special category state (SCS), the Congress was unable to take a stand at variance with the stand of the UPA government even when they involved vital interests of the state. [Niyamgiri, though, was a different ball game].

This discomfiture of the two national parties has suited BJD just fine. It has successfully projected itself as the only party that has the interests of the state at its heart.

All one has to do to realize the BJP’s unease on the Mahanadi dispute is to see and hear the statement of its leaders in the state. Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, who is clearly being groomed by the party’s central leadership to lead the charge against Naveen Patnaik in 2019, is in the rather unenviable task of balancing the interests of the state with the interests of the party, which rarely converge.

The BJP’s Man Friday for Odisha first dug out an old agreement signed between the governments of Odisha and Madhya Pradesh (of which the present day Chhattisgarh was a part at the time) way back in 1983 for formation of a joint monitoring board to sort out all disputes over Mahanadi and sought a solution within its framework. But senior BJP leader Bijoy Mohapatra immediately called his bluff, pointing out that such a board would be a toothless body whose decisions would not be legally enforceable. Instead, he made out a case for approaching the Supreme Court for formation of a tribunal as per a 1956 Central Act.

The fissures within the saffron party on the Mahanadi issue came to the fore once again after Chhattisgarh rejected offhand Odisha’s plea to stop work on the barrages at the tripartite meeting brokered by the Union Water Resources Ministry on September 17. The state unit’s studied refusal to utter a word against Chhattisgarh or its Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh has left it looking suspect in the eyes of the average Odia. True, Bijoy Mohapatra did come out openly against both. But then his condemnation made the silence of the other leaders even more audible.

The same discomfiture is discernible in the way the party has responded to the belligerence of the BJD on the Polavaram issue.

With its highly emotive trappings, Mahanadi had presented a heaven sent opportunity for the BJP to put the BJD on the mat and show it for what it is: a party that chose to look the other way as Chhattisgarh went on building one project after another in the last decade. But the party allowed the compulsions of realpolitik to take precedence over its strategy for winning elections in Odisha. In the process, it may well have allowed Naveen Patnaik to laugh all the way to the vote bank – at least in the panchayat elections early next year.