Op-Ed: Modi’s Utterances On Mahanadi Disappointing

Given that Mahanadi has been dominating the headlines for some time now, all eyes – and ears – were naturally fixated on if and what Prime Minister Narendra says on the vexed issue during his address at the Balijatra ground in Cuttack on Saturday. And given the fact that the BJP is on the back foot on the issue due to its scarcely concealed sympathies with its government in Chhattisgarh, most people expected him not to touch the subject at all. In fact, many of them had actually expressed such an apprehension on the social media in the hours leading up to the PM’s speech.

Well, Modi proved them all wrong by not skirting the issue in his speech. But what he said failed to allay the apprehensions about the impact of the ongoing construction of several barrages in the upper reaches of what has been aptly described as ‘Odisha’s Lifeline’ by the Chhattisgarh government. Nor did it hold out the promise that the Prime Minister would play the neutral umpire between the two contending states. His utterances on Mahandi were of a piece with what state BJP leaders have been saying on the issue ad nauseam, blaming the Odisha government for all the present problems. It is nobody’s case that the Odisha government is blameless in handling the dispute over sharing of Mahanadi water with Chhattisgarh. In fact, the Odisha government admitted that it has a dispute on its hands only in 2016, nearly a decade after Chhattisgarh started construction of the barrages. But the people of Odisha certainly expected better from the Prime Minister of the country. They expected him to talk like a statesman; but he ended up speaking like a partisan party leader.

If he really wanted the people of Odisha to ‘give a chance to the BJP’ (as Jual Oram said in his speech), the least he could have done was to promise that he would use his good offices to stop Chhattisgarh from going ahead with work on its ongoing projects till the tribunal gives it award. As the supreme leader of the party, there was no way Dr. Raman Singh could have refused to respect his entreaties, more so because the Central government itself has admitted that the construction was illegal. But in laying the blame solely on the Odisha government, Modi showed that he is more concerned about not doing anything that might cause an embarrassment to the Raman Singh government, which faces a crucial election later this year, than winning the hearts of the people of Odisha, which goes to polls next year. In the process, he lost a lot of goodwill that could have stood his party in good stead in the next elections.

BJD members, sympathizers and apologists have expectedly pounced on the PM’s speech to show him as ‘anti-Odisha’. They have picked up his absurd claim that the Odisha government rejected the Centre’s offer of a tribunal on Mahanadi to paint him as a ‘liar’.

While being courageous enough not to skip the Mahandai issue – even though he had nothing to promise to the people of Odisha – Modi stopped short of taking on the Naveen Patnaik government frontally, deepening the suspicion about some kind of a tacit, secret understanding between the two sides to keep the doors open for an overt or covert deal should the post-poll situation so demand. The BJP cannot play this double game of running with the hare and hunting with the hound – stinging criticism by state leaders and complete silence by central leaders – and still expect to win the next elections. The party does not stand a chance in hell if the suspicion persists in the minds of the people about an ‘understanding’ between the two sides. It was therefore important for Modi to scotch any such suspicion by launching a frontal attack on the BJD government. It was not statesmanship, but realpolitik at work.

On his part, Naveen Patnaik did not enhance his image by refusing to receive the PM personally and sending the chief secretary instead. It was worse than his no-show at the house of Dr. Bansidhar Panda after his death the other day because in this case, it was the Prime Minister of the country, no less, even though he had come on what has been described as a ‘party programme’. His no-show became particularly glaring since West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, certainly a more forthright critic of Modi than Naveen, had received the PM on his visit to Shantiniketan just the previous day.

But it is possible that there was a political message hidden somewhere in Naveen’s decision not to receive the PM personally. While the BJP top leadership is shy of taking on Naveen, the latter may have enhanced his credentials as a fighter for Odisha’s interests, someone who doesn’t mind giving protocol a go by to teach the ‘anti-Odisha’ BJP a lesson!


(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)