Op-Ed: How Naveen Patnaik has fooled the two ‘national’ parties for 15 years

It has been the subject of street corner gossip for as long as one can remember. But on Sunday, BJD supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik lent authenticity to what had so far remained only in the realm of speculation. Normally, it is extremely difficult to pin Naveen down to the numbers game, who restricts himself to terms like ‘plenty’, ‘enough’ and ‘many’. But in his address launching the ruling party’s campaign for the elections next month at Nayagarh, the reticent party chief surprised everybody with his bold and forthright assertion that his party would win all 21 Lok Sabha seats.

But even that didn’t really give the game away as much as what followed. “No party will get a majority and the BJD will play a key role in the formation of the next government,” he said in what was a clear departure from his usual way of talking in general terms rather than getting into specifics. Though he didn’t say it in as many words, what he actually meant was this. “It doesn’t matter which party or alliance is closer to the majority mark; neither side can do without my support in forming the next government.”

This can be interpreted in two ways. First, the Chief Minister is all set to abandon the practice of staying away from the Central government while lending ‘issue based’ support as and when needed. Second, the policy of ‘equi-distance’ that he has sworn by right through his fourth term in office actually means he has kept the option open to join, formally or otherwise, either side of the two warring parties – the BJP and Congress – depending on the outcome of the general elections.

Though the quixotic sounding term gained currency only after 2014, the BJD boss has been using the policy that it encapsulates to telling effect to stay firmly ensconced in his chair for 15 long years now. Consummate practitioner of the art of politics that he is, Naveen has been fooling around with the two ‘national’ parties; now playing one against the other, now threatening to join the other side, always keeping both sides on tenterhooks and staying on the right side of the party that rules at the Centre. Even as he has chiseled away consistently, diligently and systematically at the two parties to weaken them in Odisha, the two parties, as if possessed by a death wish or mesmerized by some black magic, have been happy dancing to his tunes!

Former PCC chief Jayadev Jena is on record (in 2013) accusing Naveen of ‘conspiring’ to get him removed from the same post the last time round (in 2008). It was as clear an admission as possible that the BJD boss doesn’t just lord over the affairs of his own party; he also takes key decisions in other parties. Though no such candid admissions have been made by any BJP leader, it is obvious to anyone who understands reapolitik that he cuts behind-the-scene deals and influences, if not dictates, major decisions in the saffron party too.

How Naveen bailed out and stood behind the Narendra Modi government whenever needed right through its five-year run since 2014 is all too recent to merit recounting. But for those might have forgotten, here is an incident that proves how he enjoyed the best of terms with the top honchos of the UPA government and the Congress party even as state leaders of the latter went hammer and tongs against his government day in and day out (just as he has done with the NDA government and the BJP bosses since 2014).

Faced with the prospect of being arraigned for the acts of omission and commission of his government in the massive mining scam that went on unabated for nine long years, the deal-maker par excellence got the UPA government to effect a crucial amendment to Section 37 of the Mining Rules under the MMDR Act to take illegal mining out of the ambit of criminal offence and place it in the realm of a civil offence that can be condoned with a fine. We all know how the fines were first pegged at Rs. 57, 000 crores, then revised downwards to around Rs. 17, 000 crores and then forgotten altogether to keep the miners in good humour. On its part, the Modi government has sat over the recommendation of the MB Shah Commission, which pegged the scam at Rs. 60, 000 crores, for a CBI inquiry for five years now. No wonder, several prominent local leaders of the two parties, having realized the deal-making at the highest levels, have seen merit in crossing over to the ruling party for pelf and power rather than perennially rot in the opposition.

One doesn’t, however, have to go that far back in history to realize how he has managed the seemingly unthinkable feat of making both the national parties falling over one other to keep in him in good humour and hand over on a platter victory after victory to ensure that he continues to lord over Odisha. Even a cursory reading of the list of candidates leaves no room for doubt that both the parties have conspired to give another term in office to Naveen in the hope of possible support at the Centre.

Let us consider just one example from either side. The Congress, the party that supposedly went strictly by ‘winnability’ while choosing candidates, didn’t feel Sadhu Nepak, the man who defeated Ananda Acharya, the elder brother of Rajya Sabha member and BJD candidate in Bargarh Lok Sabha seat Prasanna Acharya, in 2009 and polled 46, 146 votes in 2014, met the criteria and fielded Nipan Das, a new face whose support base is suspect, in his place. No wonder a peeved Nepak has ended up in BJD.

The BJP’s choice of candidate for the Bargarh Lok Sabha seat proves how it has virtually handed over the seat to BJD on a platter. Not only was Subas Chouhan, the BJP candidate who lost with the lowest margin of 11, 178 votes in the 2014 elections, not given a ticket. His seat was given to Suresh Pujari, who had groomed his old constituency of Sambalpur with great care. Pujari, in turn, made way for Nitesh Gangdev, the BJP candidate who won with the highest margin of around 89, 000 from the Deogarh Assembly. Thus in one stroke, the saffron party has gifted three potentially winning seats – two Lok Sabha and one Assembly – to the party that it is supposed to be fighting. One doesn’t have to be a political pundit to make out that there has been some behind-the-scene deal-making at work.

Needless to say, such deal-making has given Naveen an unchallenged reign for 19 years – and looks like giving him another five years in office. But what one fails to understand is what the two parties have actually gained in the bargain. Deal-making, after all, involves give and take from both sides. But in this case, one cannot really think of any tangible benefit that the BJP or Congress stands to gain out of it. One possible explanation could be both of them have chosen to lose the minor battle of Odisha to win the larger war at the national level. But has it really panned out that way? The entire exercise seems to be aimed at ensuring that Naveen doesn’t cross over to the other side even as the two parties go from bad to worse in the state. It is shadow-boxing where one side is ‘determined’ to lose.

Naveen must be laughing at the sheer naiveté of the two ‘national’ parties and patting himself on the back for the ease with which he has managed to lead both of them up the garden path for 15 years while ensuring that there is not the remotest challenge to him!

(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)