Talk Of Naveen-Mamata Axis Is Mere Political Kite-flying

Over the last few days, there has been plenty of speculation, primarily driven by media reports, about a new developing axis between Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his West Bengal counterpart Mamata Banerjee. But is such an axis really on the works? If it is, is it part of the nationwide move to form a Maha Gathbandhan (Grand Alliance) of opposition parties against a steamrolling BJP?

This columnist, for one, believes too much is being read into the brief Naveen-Mamata meeting on Thursday afternoon, which came about after a lot of suspense over whether it would take place at all. After the meeting, both leaders made it amply clear they did not talk politics. And yet many observers are not ready to take it at face value for reasons they are unable to explain.

Let us think about it logically. What does either of them gain by an alliance? If the idea is to stop the Modi juggernaut from rolling into West Bengal and Odisha – the two states that halted the BJP march in the 2014 general elections even as Modi charmed his way into the hearts and minds of voters in the rest of the country – then such an alliance does not make any political sense. The BJD does not have a presence in West Bengal while the Trinamool Congress (TMC) presence in Odisha is negligible. If the TMC does go ahead and contest the municipal elections due early next year – as TMC convener Arya Kumar Jnanedra has quoted Mamata as telling the state unit – who gains? Certainly not the BJD. TMC leaders may like to believe it would harm the BJP, but any incremental vote for the TMC, in my view, can only end up harming the ruling party in Odisha by splitting the anti-BJP vote. The only situation in which the two parties would benefit from each other’s company is if they have a proper seat-sharing arrangement. But given the TMC’s marginal presence in Odisha, Naveen has no incentive to get into such an arrangement with the TMC and risk annoying a section of the party.

For that matter, Naveen has precious little to gain by being part of a Grand Alliance against BJP ahead of the next general elections. As is his wont, Naveen has been avoiding any talk of being part of such an alliance on the perfectly legitimate ground that the elections are a long time away. My assessment is that the only way the BJD would be part of it is if it junks its ‘equi-distant’ policy and joins an alliance that also has the Congress as a major component. He cannot, for obvious reasons, insist on being part of such an alliance only on the condition that the Congress is kept out of it. Given its much weakened position compared to 2014 and the upswing in the BJP’s fortunes in the state – as was evident in the results of the panchayat polls – an alliance with the Congress makes eminent political sense for the BJD. For one thing, a weakened Congress is not its principal rival any more, its place having been taken by the BJP. For another, both of them stand on the same ‘secular’ side of the political divide. The BJP has emerged as main rival for both of them and hence the BJD has much to gain by having some understanding with the Congress – whether in the form of a proper seat sharing deal, an unwritten understanding or even what is euphemistically called a ‘friendly fight’ – and plenty to lose by going solo.

In this context, it is important to recall what BJD Parliamentary Party leader Bhartruhari Mahatab had said on the issue a few months ago. Speaking about the possibility of a broad anti-BJP alliance at the national level, the Cuttack MP had said the Congress was ‘not quite the force it used to be’ and hence should not be an ‘untouchable’. Though the party quickly distanced itself from his statement and reiterated its ‘equi-distant’ policy, the fact that Mahatab has not been chastened yet suggests that he indeed had the party supremo’s blessings in saying what he said. It is possible it was Naveen’s way of testing the waters.

If the BJD does ultimately decide not to have any truck with the Congress for the next election, it would most certainly not be part of any multilateral alliance at the national level – or even a bilateral one with the likes of TMC.

Talk of a BJD-TMC axis thus is just political kite-flying. The only thing that could have figured in the Mamata-Naveen talks today is on how to meet the common challenge of the CBI probe into the chit fund scam, which is beginning to show signs of coming alive after meandering along for over two years.

Or, it could just be a courtesy call where no politics was discussed – as both leaders were pains to emphasise at the end of their meeting.