Op-Ed: ‘Naveen in Odisha, Modi in Delhi’ is the BJP’s new mantra

It’s now ‘official’! BJP has thrown in the towel even before the bout has begun in right earnest in Odisha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rather tame address at Baripada today left no room for any doubt that the top leadership of the party has read the writing on the wall and decided to present Odisha on a platter to Naveen Patnaik – of course in the fervent hope that the BJD supremo would prove to be as trusted an ally in the 17th Lok Sabha as he has been in this term of the Lower House of Parliament. “Naveen in Odisha, Modi in Delhi” is the BJP’s new mantra.

The stage was all set for the PM to tear into the Naveen Patnaik government to make amends for the kid gloves that he treated the latter with in his speech at Khurda during his last visit to the state on December 24. For one thing, state BJP leaders had built up expectations of a frontal attack on the BJD and its boss at Baripada. For another, Naveen has been uncharacteristically combative in taking on the Modi government in the last two weeks. Barely two days after Modi’s visit to Khurda, Naveen, speaking at the 21st Foundation Day celebrations of the BJD on December 26, had dished out a nine-point ‘charge sheet’ against the Modi government. Coming from someone never known for going overboard in his criticism of anyone, this was certainly surprising – more so because Modi himself, known for being unsparing in his criticism of rivals, had been unusually soft on him at Khurda.

And then, barely two days before the PM’s second visit to the state in a fortnight, Naveen dashed off a letter to the PM in which he stopped just short of calling the latter a liar while refuting his claim at Khurda that the BJD government had created additional irrigation potential for just 22, 000 hectares in its fourth term as against the 10 lakh hectares it had promised in its manifesto for the 2014 elections. In between, the BJD did something that it has steadfastly refused to do in this Lok Sabha – openly siding with the combined Opposition on the issue of a JPC on the Rafale deal.

Given this backdrop, it was naturally expected that Modi would do a Jharsuguda – and maybe even go further than that – in his criticism of the state government. Instead, Modi reserved all his trade mark sarcasm and venom for the Congress while sparing the BJD and Naveen almost entirely. BJP spokespersons had little choice but to pounce on the oblique reference to the Pipli gang rape and murder case. But he chose to ‘urge’ the state government to ensure justice rather than take it on, leaving his party workers and state level leaders looking rather foolish. In the run up to Baripada, state leaders of BJP had discreetly told the local media that Modi would launch a ‘scathing’ attack on the Naveen government on the chit fund scam since Ramachandra Hansda, the BJD MP from Mayurbhanj, spent nearly four year in jail for his involvement in it. But Modi did not even touch on the subject – or any other subject that might even remotely embarrass the man he had called ‘my good friend’ not so long ago. If it was kid gloves at Khurda, Baripada turned out to be just short of an embrace.

The sharp criticism of the Congress by the Prime Minister was amusing – and a pointless exercise to boot. After all, his party leaders here have consistently maintained that it’s a ‘straight fight’ between the BJD and BJP in Odisha, with the Congress nowhere in picture. So, why take on an also ran when you have nothing to say about your supposed main rival? Modi did bark at Baripada, but up the wrong tree!

The cat and mouse game between the BJD and BJP is getting curiouser by the day. Even as the BJP is becoming progressively soft on Naveen, the latter is raising the pitch against the BJP and the Centre. The farmers rally scheduled at the Talkatora stadium in New Delhi on Monday is also part of the BJD supremo’s recalibrated strategy ahead of the 2019 elections. This new strategy is clearly aimed at dispelling the impression that the two frenemies have a secret ‘deal’ which it believes could cost it dear at the hustings.

It is possible that the BJP’s decision to go soft on the Naveen could also be part of a revised strategy to prolong public suspicion about a ‘deal’ with him to foil his efforts to dispel precisely such an impression in the hope that it would hurt the electoral prospects of BJD.

As the battle of attrition hots up ahead of the elections, we are certainly in for some interesting times.

(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)