Is Gita Mehta Really Bracing For A Role In Odisha Politics?

By Sandeep Sahu

Ever since BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik asked Bishnu Das to resign from the Rajya Sabha, the name of Gita Mehta, his elder sister, has been doing the rounds in political circles as a possible replacement for the Jagatsinghpur leader. In the last few days, the talk has veered to the possibility of her even taking over as Chief Minister. The proponents of this theory seek to justify it by pointing to his alleged health concerns that that they say require him to undergo a surgery he has kept delaying for some time now. This despite Naveen’s recent clarification that he is absolutely ‘fit and fine’. Just like speculation over his health problems, talk about Gita taking on a political role has refused to die down even though no one – neither Gita herself nor Naveen nor any other leader in the party – has even hinted at such a possibility. So, is this all idle political gossip, something that the media revels in, or is there something more to it?

This columnist, for one, is inclined to believe that Gita is just playing the concerned elder sister and is trying to help Naveen out by simply being by his side at a time when he is facing the toughest political challenge in his two-decade long political career in the form of a resurgent and bellicose BJP. That she would leave everything and come all the way from US to plunge into the hurly burly of Odisha politics – and that too at a time when the BJD is showing distinct signs of fraying at the edges – just does not make sense. Even assuming that Naveen indeed needs a surgery and thus has to stay away for several weeks, if not months, why on earth would he choose a ‘successor’ who is three years his senior? It would have made sense had it been someone like Arun Patnaik, the Chief Minister’s nephew.

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Over the years, Naveen has always needed someone to lean on for running the party and the government on his behalf. First, it was Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, who played the role to perfection for over a decade before his ambition got the better of him in 2012. For the next couple of years, it was Kalpataru Das, who played advisor-at-large to Naveen till his death in July, 2015. From then on, it has been the Chief Minister’s trusted personal secretary Karthikeyan Pandian all the way. But the outcome of the panchayat elections appears to have brought in its wake a change of thinking. With the knives out for his Man Friday after the less than flattering results in the zila parishad elections, Naveen appears to have realized the folly of over-dependence on a bureaucrat to run the party. And since there is hardly anyone in the party who he can trust completely, he may have felt that he needed someone who he can bank on for wise counsel on matters both political and personal. This, in my view, is all there is to Gita’s increasingly frequent trips to Bhubaneswar of late.

But assuming that this author is wrong and Gita Mehta is indeed bracing for an active political role in Odisha, what are the chances of such a move succeeding? Will those in the party who are allegedly contemplating jumping over to the BJP side likely to change their minds if she has a greater say in party affairs? What can Gita, who has virtually no experience of Odisha politics – in fact, any politics – and little knowledge or understanding of the changing equations within the party, do to save the party from sinking that her brother, with his experience of being at the helm for two decades, couldn’t? And last but not the least, how will the electorate at large, which is allegedly beginning to get disillusioned with Naveen, respond to a bigger role in the party – and even the government – for his sister?

These and many more imponderables put a serious question mark over any long term political role for Gita in the BJD. But it is possible that she may play, in the short run, friend, philosopher, guide to her beleaguered younger brother to tide over his moment of crisis and then go back to whatever she is doing back US. Maybe there is something to the speculation about Naveen’s health after all requiring Gita to step in temporarily and keep the seat warm till he returns and takes charge. In the absence of such a scenario, her entry at this juncture does not make sense.