Op-Ed: ‘Equi-distance’ actually means ‘equi-proximity’!

There is no doubt that the ‘equi-distance’ jumla has served the interests of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) very well over the last few years. On the one hand, it has helped the ruling party to keep fooling the people of Odisha with the pretence of neutrality. On the other, it has also kept the two suitors – the Congress and the BJP – constantly on the tenterhooks. Having persuaded themselves into believing that Naveen Patnaik and his party are unbeatable in Odisha, neither side wants to rile him to a point where an understanding, tacit or otherwise, becomes impossible. But what they don’t realize that they have only helped convert this myth into reality with their hands-off approach to the BJD boss. This suits Naveen just fine because his main aim is to stay on in power in the state and not to become ‘king’ or play ‘kingmaker’ at the Centre. It’s a classic case of ‘Ek Phool Do Maali’!

Top BJP leaders must have spent a sleepless night on Tuesday after Naveen, who loves nothing more than keeping his suitors guessing, told media persons in New Delhi that he would ‘need time’ to take a call on the Mahagathbandhan, the Congress-led grand alliance taking shape in the build up to the general election later this year. They must have wondered if Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s kid glove treatment of the Naveen government in his last two visits to the state – to Khurda on December 23 and Baripada on January 5 – had gone waste after all. The party must have heaved a huge sigh of relief when the BJD supremo announced in Bhubaneswar the very next morning that the BJD would not be part of the Mahagathbandhan.

But the Congress, the other suitor, has no reason to be despondent after Naveen’s announcement in Bhubaneswar on Wednesday either. Its experience of dealing with the BJD supremo for a decade during the UPA years should convince it that it can bank on him to provide the same kind of tactical support at crucial junctures that he has provided the NDA in this Lok Sabha, if not join the Mahagathbandhan outright, should it be in a position to form the next government after the elections.

But what the two national parties don’t seem to realize is that in their desire to keep the BJD on their side at the national level, they are doing immense and lasting damage to themselves in Odisha. Jay Panda is spot on when he says that the BJP is committing the same mistake in Odisha that the Congress did for 10 years between 2004-14. The party’s steadily deteriorating performance since 2004, which hit rock bottom in the panchayat elections of February 2017, should have convinced itself that in wooing Naveen, it has only helped strengthen him further while ruining its own chances of a revival in the state. In this context, one may recollect that it was no less than former PCC President Jayadev Jena who had spilled the beans in public when he openly accused, in his very first address to party workers after taking over in 2013, Naveen Patnaik of having him removed as the PCC chief in his last stint. It only went to prove that talk of a cozy relationship between Naveen and the Congress high command was not idle speculation by the media after all.

As the BJP stormed to power riding the Modi wave in 2014, it appeared for a while that it would not follow in the footsteps of the Congress did cause a serious crisis of credibility for its state unit as the CBI went full blast against BJD leaders in the chit fund scam in the first few months of the new government. But for reasons that can only be speculated about, the investigation suddenly went cold after the initial flush of hyperactivity and has been meandering along ever since. In another sign that the BJP is not too keen to antagonize Naveen beyond a point, the Modi government has been sitting on the Justice MB Shah Commission report on the mega mining scam between 2000-09 and refusing to order a CBI probe into it as strongly recommended by the Commission, which could have ripped apart the veneer of probity that BJD leaders have weaved around their boss.

For a while after the windfall in the Zilla Parishad elections in which it won an incredible 297 seats, it appeared that the saffron party was shedding its diffidence and bracing for a real fight with Naveen. It was during this period that party chief Amit Shah announced with much fanfare its ‘Mission 120’. But like the CBI probe into the chit fund scam, it has lost steam to the point where party leaders, including Shah himself, have stopped talking about it altogether.

Meanwhile, Naveen must be laughing at the ease with which he has fooled around with the two national parties for close to 15 years, playing one against the other while making sure there is no real threat to his chair from either of them. And patting himself on the back for the incredible success of his ‘equi-distance’ jumla, his contribution the political lexicon in the country that actually means ‘equi-proximity’.

(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)