Can the BJD outlive Naveen?

By Sandeep Sahu

A rider at the outset. As of now, the BJD, the ruling party in Odisha, is going strong and there is nothing to suggest that its love affair with the people of the state could sour any time soon. But the ongoing tug-of-war for control of two major regional parties currently in power – Samajwadi Party (SP) in Uttar Pradesh up north and AIADMK in Tamil Nadu down south – provides an occasion to speculate on whether anything like it could happen to BJD in the foreseeable – if not near – future.

Of course, the possibility of a power struggle within the BJD is virtually nil as long as Naveen Patnaik is fit and fine. Chastened by the coup-that-wasn’t mounted by former advisor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra in March, 2012, the BJD supremo has done enough to snuff out the remotest possible chance of an encore. Thus, any wrangling for the control of the party has to be necessarily a post-Naveen affair – with the turn of events going the AIADMK way rather than the SP way.

The only way a tussle for power in the ruling party could be averted is if Naveen anoints someone from the family to succeed him. Nephew Arun Patnaik’s name has been bandied about in some quarters in the past – especially when he showed up at the handing over of Ananda Bhavan, Biju Patnaik’s iconic house in Cuttack, to the state government nearly two years ago. But the events since then have given no indication whatsoever if the uncle is thinking along those lines or the nephew is willing to play a political role. The ever inscrutable Naveen Patnaik, who has always believed in – and thrived on – keeping his cards as close to his chest as possible, has remained mum on the issue of succession and the media has been too diffident about even broaching the subject so as to expect an answer from him. Even the ebullient Pradeep Maharathy, the only party leader who has gone public on the issue and has voiced his full support for Arun, has not raked up the topic since then. [It is, however, not clear if his continued silence on the issue is the outcome of a nudge from the party boss.]

It is possible that Naveen has a succession plan up his sleeve but doesn’t want to reveal it now. But in the unlikely event of something happening to Naveen (May God bless him with a long life!) before that plan is put to action, there are two distinct possibilities of how things could pan out. If it comes before the next Assembly election in 2019, the party may yet survive a split – at least till the elections are over – because every aspirant for leadership would keep his/her ambition in check and talk about some kind of a ‘collective leadership’ to cash in on the sympathy factor to come to power. The tussle for control in such a scenario would begin in right earnest only after the election though it is hard to say who could emerge winner at the end of it all.

The second possibility envisages a post-2019 election scenario with the BJD in all probability still in power. With Naveen gone and the pre-election compulsion to stay united not relevant anymore, personal ambitions are bound to come out of the closet leading to a no-holds-barred fight for control of the party and government. In such a scenario, a rerun of the developments in the erstwhile Janata Dal (JD) in the 1997-1998 period where a sizeable section of the party breaks away and ties up with one or more of the opposition parties to ensure that the government (assuming that the BJD wins the next election too) stays afloat while the other faction becomes an opposition party.

The situation could, however, be entirely different if the voter decides to turn conventional wisdom upside down to vote for a non-BJD party or an alliance of non-BJD parties in the 2019 elections. If that is the case, bickering in the party could raise its ugly head even if Naveen is still in the saddle. For all his untrammeled control of the party, it would be a mistake to assume that he would continue to enjoy the same unquestioning loyalty and complete submission from party leaders even after losing an election. Nothing binds like power. Naveen demands and commands total loyalty because he has repeatedly proved that he is the sole vote catcher of the party. Once there is a dent in his ability to bring in votes, the murmurs of dissent are bound to surface. One only has to remember the plight of his father Biju Patnaik, who won the 1990 elections with an unprecedented majority of 123 in an Assembly of 147 (a feat yet to be bettered or emulated by his son) after he lost in 1995 to realise what a defeat could do to a leader.

It is hard to think of one leader among the existing crop of BJD leaders who can carry the party with him and command complete loyalty from other leaders and party cadres. Unless Naveen publicly anoints someone as his successor, a split in the BJD cannot be ruled out. And even if he does anoint someone, it would keep the party intact only as long as he is alive.