Reshuffle & After: Naveen Losing Clout & Control

What is the big takeaway from Sunday’s reshuffle of the council of ministers, the biggest since Naveen Patnaik took over as Chief Minister in 2000? Even seasoned, eagle-eyed observers, who have mastered the art of ferreting out the ‘message’ in every political move for years, were hard pressed to answer the question. Hacks, young and old, went through the list of ministers with a magnifying lens over and over again to find any strategy that may have been hidden in it. But they did no better than the observers.

Unwilling to concede that they have failed to read between the lines, some would say the big takeaway is that the Young Turks in the party, who had grown too big for their boots, have been put in their place by the BJD supremo. But is that really true? There are strong indications coming from within the ruling party itself that at least two of the outgoing ministers, fearful of losing their influence in their areas, managed to prevail on the party boss not to take anyone from their districts in the new council of ministers. [A third, who is not exactly young but has managed to be always in the cabinet, insisted that at least his bête noire in his district is not made a minister.] If the Young Turks can dictate terms to the supremo, can we still assume that their wings have been really clipped?

This columnist, however, has managed to zero in on at least one takeaway from Sunday’s exercise. It is that rather than the wings of the outgoing young brigade, it is the wings of the supremo that have now been well and truly clipped. For the first time in his four successive terms as Chief Minister, it looks like Naveen Patnaik’s writ does not run in the party anymore: his word is no more the commandment to be followed unhesitatingly and unquestioningly by every party man. It has got to a stage where BJD spokespersons, who are expected to defend the party chief in everything he does, have started openly voicing their anguish at no one from their districts making it to the council of ministers. Even the fact that he had to drop Karanjia MLA BIjay Nayak from the list of new ministers at the very last minute after the BJP made an issue of the sting operation he was allegedly involved in points to Naveen’s inability to stand firm on a decision taken and his new found tendency to succumb to pressure, not just from within the party but even from outside.

Signs that Naveen is not quite ‘the lord of all he surveys’ that he was all these years were, however, visible even before the new ministers were named. In an uncharacteristically humble gesture, the BJD boss actually ‘thanked’ those who had volunteered to quit their ministerial posts and expressed a desire to work for the party (which, as later events proved, was a blatant lie!). The weakening of Naveen’s persona is evident in many other ways too. The return of the old guard like Surjya Narayan Patro, Maheswar Mohanty and Prafulla Samal is a case in point. What exactly made the Chief Minister bring back these three – all of them dropped in the past for alleged improprieties – at this juncture? Sprucing up the image of the party and the government, something that he needs badly going into the 2019 elections, surely could not have been a reason, could it?

Even the fact that the reshuffle took so long coming (In a way, it was forced on him by a persistent media and expectations within the ruling party) suggests that Naveen kept postponing the exercise all these months because he was wary of stirring a hornet’s nest and upsetting the delicate balance – unleashing anger, anguish and apprehension within the party in the process.

The fear of Naveen, it is now abundantly clear, is now a thing of the past. One just has to listen to the barbs thrown at each other by Cuttack MP Bhartruhari Mahatab and Barabati Cuttack MLA Debashish Samantaray to realize that BJD leaders now care two hoots about the gag order issued by the supremo and relish fighting their private battles in the open through the media.  The revolt of sorts witnessed within the youth wing of the party recently was another pointer to the fast eroding power of Naveen Patnaik in the party. But nothing provided a bigger proof of his diminishing clout than his recent admission that he is considering taking back some of the leaders he had thrown out in the past on a ‘case-to-case’ basis.

A weak Naveen, unsure of himself and apprehensive of a revolt, is hardly the best recipe for the BJD ahead of the next elections. Sensing that the enemy is down, the aggressive BJP is already zeroing in for the kill. If the BJD boss can still resurrect himself in time and prevail in 2019, it would be nothing short of a miracle.