Op-Ed: Why containing rebels won’t be easy for Naveen this time

When the BJP and the Congress open their doors to defectors from other parties ahead of the elections, it is hardly surprising. After all, both these parties have been in doldrums in the state for far too long – the former since 2009, when BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik left it high and dry with his unilateral decision to part ways, and the latter since 2000 when it was voted out of power. Thus, it is only natural for them to acquire leaders from other parties to improve their electoral prospects. But the real surprise in the run up to the election this time is the rate at which the ruling BJD is roping in leaders from other parties and former government officials. It just goes to show that for all the bravado in public about sweeping the polls again, the BJD boss is worried that the reality on the ground is not so rosy.

It goes without saying that many of the recruits from other parties would be fielded as candidates in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. It is highly unlikely that the likes of Naba Das, Jogesh Singh, Pradeep Dishari and Sushama Biswal would have switched sides without a promise of BJD tickets. There is a definite pattern to the choice of those being imported. Almost all of them are leaders with a solid support base. Das and Singh are sitting MLAs while Dishari and Biswal had put up a spirited fight against their BJD rivals in the 2014 election; the former polling about 42,000 votes as the Congress candidate in Lanjigarh and Biswal around 39,000 as the BJP nominee in Nilagiri. At one level, this is an effort to weaken the Opposition further – a strategy that the BJD has tried out successfully in the past, most notably in the Bijepur by-election last year. But at another level, this is also an indirect admission by the party supremo that the existing leaders in the party are not good enough to win the election in these constituencies.

If Naveen replaces 40-45 sitting MLAs, as is being speculated, he would have to contend with a large army of disgruntled leaders which would include not just the incumbent legislators who are substituted, but also those in the party who are ticket aspirants. Those who have worked for the party for years would certainly not reconcile themselves to working for ‘outsiders’ so easily. They would do everything they can to put all the pressure they can command on the party leadership not to go ahead with such a course.

Of course, it is possible that the replacement would be someone from within the party and not an import from other parties in all such cases. But even if one BJD leader is replaced with another, it would still leave a sizeable number of disgruntled ticket aspirants. Given the fact that Naveen is the principal vote catcher for the party, they may not exactly raise the banner of revolt against him. But they can be trusted to undercut the chances of the official nominee by surreptitiously working against them or, at the very least, not lending their full weight behind them. Such non-cooperation would obviously be more pronounced in case of recruits from other parties getting BJD tickets. At least some of those who lose out on the ticket sweepstakes could join either the BJP or the Congress at the last minute or even decide to contest as independents against the official party candidates. If that happens, it may create a situation like 1995 when the then Janata Dal, which had no less than 123 MLAs in the Assembly, was reduced to just 46 though there was no visible anger or resentment against the Biju Patnaik government.

The announcement about earmarking 33% of Lok Sabha seats for women is another imponderable that the BJD supremo has to reckon with, more so if he follows it up with reserving a sizeable number – if not 33% – of the Assembly seats for the fair sex to burnish his pro-women credentials. For one thing, there may not be enough women leaders in these constituencies who would pass the ‘winnability’ test which Naveen has said would be the sole deciding factor while choosing candidates. For another, it would pit the woman candidate against a whole lot of male ticket aspirants. Even if such disgruntlement is successfully managed, it need not necessarily ensure victory for the woman candidate. Women won’t necessarily vote for someone just because the candidate is a woman. The bid to give greater representation to women in the legislature thus could work both ways and may even backfire.

Naveen Patnaik will have to summon all his political skills to ensure that the rebellion by disgruntled party leaders, including sitting MLAs, do not ruin the chances of the official nominee. With both the BJP and the Congress in much better shape than they were in 2014, Elections 2019 could well turn out to be the toughest challenge that he has faced in his two-decade long career.

(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)