What’s the secret of Naveen Patnaik’s sudden aggression? The Odisha CM went ballistic reading out a nine-point ‘chargesheet’ against the Narendra Modi government at the BJD’s 21st foundation day celebrations on December 26, 2018. And just two days before PM Modi’s latest visit to the state on January 5, the BJD supremo shot off a letter to him, challenging the veracity of his claim that the Odisha government, which had promised to bring 10 lakh additional hectares under irrigation in its 2014 manifesto, had managed no more than 22,000 hectares in the four-and-a-half years of Naveen’s fourth term. Modi had made the claim in his speech at Khurda on December 24.
Naveen’s uncharacteristically strong attack came alongside decisions to back the combined Opposition’s demand for a JPC probe on the Rafale deal and organise a farmers rally at New Delhi’s Talkatora stadium on January 8—all marking a recalibrated, more aggressive strategy. On the other hand, Modi disappointed local BJP workers, long at the receiving end of barbs over their party’s alleged ‘secret deal’ with the BJD, when he failed to name either Naveen or BJD even once in his Khurda speech despite mentioning corruption and distress migration. In his speech at Baripada on January 5, too, he was far from taking on Naveen and BJD frontally, choosing to offer some ‘friendly advice’ instead on denial of justice to the victim of a gangrape case and Odisha’s refusal to be part of the Ayushman Bharat scheme.
One possible explanation of Naveen’s aggression in the face of Modi’s apparent softening of tone is that it’s the Odisha CM’s way of asserting that the BJP cannot take him for granted. It could also be part of his effort to shake off the widely held impression that he had a ‘deal’ with the BJP, which could cost him votes. Veteran journalist Rabi Das, however, has a different take on the issue. “Naveen has realised that the BJP is growing in Odisha and could pose a serious challenge to the BJD in the long run, if not in this year’s elections. Hence, the BJP rather than the Congress is enemy No. 1 for him as of now,” says Das.
Though many local workers have been left wondering what the BJP’s stand on the Naveen government exactly is, Modi’s refusal to take on Naveen in the run-up to simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections points to a recalibration of strategy by the ruling party at the Centre. The change of tack appears to have been forced on the top leadership of the BJP by the setbacks in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, after which the possibility of the NDA falling short of the magic number of 272 seats in the next Lok Sabha began to look real. Privately, BJP leaders admit as much.
“The idea is not to give Naveen a walkover in Odisha, and also make sure he doesn’t join the Opposition ranks,” says a BJP insider who doesn’t want to be named. This appears to be a hard-nosed realistic approach because Naveen has been among the BJP’s most trusted non-NDA allies in the four-and-a-half years of Modi as PM, bailing out the government whenever it has been in trouble or needed support.
This strategy also points to a realisation of the ground realities and an indirect admission that for all its tall talk of ‘Mission 120’ (winning 120 seats in the 147-member Odisha assembly), the BJP is in no position to take on Naveen in his home turf at this juncture. Hence it makes eminent political sense to make sure Naveen doesn’t fall into the enemy camp and leave the door ajar for a post-poll understanding that ensures the continuation of the cozy relationship in the Lok Sabha. With the cat and mouse game between the two ‘frenemies’ undergoing several twists and turns, Odisha is certainly in for some interesting political times this year.
- At the BJD’s foundation day function, Naveen read out a nine-point chargesheet against the Modi government.
- Naveen has been among the BJP’s most trusted non-NDA allies during Modi’s term, bailing it out in times of trouble.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar