August 05, 2020
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A Tribal Sacrifice

Biswal replaces Gamang, but he’s no good omen for the polls

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A Tribal Sacrifice

FOR Giridhar Gamang— a noted numerologist whose one vote toppled the BJP-led government last time— the numbers simply didn’t add up. When push came to shove, only six or seven of the 81 Congress MLAs in Orissa backed him. With anger uncharacteristic in so mild-mannered a man, he yielded the CM’s chair to a fellow tribal, Hemananda Biswal.

Gamang’s ouster,  under pressure from the CLP, may have bought peace in the three-month run-up to the assembly elections, but has left the other Congress chief ministers feeling vulnerable. "There was no reason to remove him, as if the cyclone (which devastated coastal Orissa) was his fault. It has sent wrong signals to dissident MLAs in every state," said a Congress CM.

The intrigue against Gamang predated the cyclone but gathered momentum against the backdrop of relief efforts. Even as relief measures moved into top gear, dissidence picked up alarmingly The timing of the dissidents was impeccable; the Congress had just lost its government in Goa, Gamang’s chief advisor, his son, was desperately ill and relief wasn’t proceeding properly. 

When the dissidents began threatening a repeat of Goa— a split in the CLP— Congress president Sonia Gandhi despatched the AICC general secretary in charge of Orissa, Madhavrao Scindia, and Rajya Sabha MP Vyalar Ravi, to mollify the dissidents. The offer: if Gamang was allowed to continue until the assembly elections, he would not be projected as CM during the polls. The MLAs, well aware that Congress’s chances of coming back to power— under Gamang or otherwise — were remote anyway, didn’t bite the bait.

Resigned to change— Scindia wasn’t too keen on Gamang continuing after the CM had kept him awaiting audience for hours— the Central leaders began looking for a "consensus" chief ministerial candidate. That was, however, easier said than done. At the heart of the dissidents’ plan, sources said, was former deputy CM Basant Biswal. The idea was to instal him as CM, with former CM J.B. Patnaik— who’d been sacked eight months ago— as state PCC chief.

Gamang came to Delhi in hope of succour from 10, Janpath, but none was forthcoming. Reportedly too squeaky clean for the comfort of his MLAs and too poor a communicator to lobby successfully, he went back to Bhubaneshwar disappointed. But he made it clear that he wanted to have nothing to do with Scindia. The AICC general secretary did not accompany the team of Central leaders who went to Orissa to anoint a new CM. Initially, the idea was to revive the long-dead tradition of inner party democracy by allowing the MLAs to pick their own leader. It was the imposition of a leader— Gamang— by the party high command which had complicated matters in Orissa, Sonia was told. Therefore, this time, the M L As should elect a CM on their own.

However, when the AICC team began interviewing M L As, it became clear that at least half of them pre f e rred J.B. Patnaik’s reinstallation. A quarter backed Basant Biswal and another quarter, Hemananda Biswal. In a free and fair election, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the resourceful Patnaik would triumph. He was acceptable to the M L As but not to Sonia. Ostensibly, however, the reason given was that a tribal CM would have to be replaced with a fellow tribal. But then the Congress was losing its tribal constituency to the BJP anyway.

The anti-Biswal lobby countered saying that Patnaik had lost the 1999 Lok Sabha election by a gaping margin and the Congress ought not to anoint a loser. That left K.P. Singhdeo, one of the two Congress MPs from the state (the other being Gamang’s wife), who wasn’t keen on going back to Orissa. Singhdeo, in fact, was Gamang’s staunchest backer, insisting that "he should not have been removed". Wo rried party managers now fear that this situation might be replicated in Delhi, where MLAs  have been ganging up against Shiela Dixit. The chief ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have also had to face similar dissidence in the recent past.

As for Hemananda Biswal, he had become chief minister under similar circumstances in 1989. He replaced J.B. Patnaik and reigned for four months, until the Congress was decimated in the Congress was decimated in the assembly elections by Biju Patnaik. Observed Ravi: "It’s a 1990-like situation." Biswal has just replaced Gamang who replaced J.B. Patnaik. This time, he has to take on Biju’s son and heir Naveen Patnaik in the assembly elections. And the results aren’t likely to be any different.

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