It was a move timed to perfection. When Union mines minister and president of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), Naveen Patnaik, gave marching orders to his arch rival in the party, Bijay Mohapatra, he did it with the cold calculation of a seasoned politician. Mohapatra, who was the BJDs political affairs committee (pac) chairman, was expelled from the party and his ticket withdrawn on the last day for filing of nominations to the assembly elections. In one stroke, Patnaik decimated his bete noire and sent out a clear message to his party that he is the undisputed head of the BJD.
Coming as it did on the eve of elections, the expulsion of the powerful pac chief sent ripples down the party as stunned leaders and workers were caught off guard. Mohapatra who enjoys considerable support in the BJD had no inkling of the move. What is ironical is that Mohapatra himself played a key role in ticket distribution. And when his own ticket to the Patkura assembly seat which he has held ever since 1981 was withdrawn at the last moment and he was replaced with a novice, his humiliation was complete. Naveen Patnaik had ensured that Mohapatra could not even contest as an independent since there was no time left to marshal the requisite numbers to propose his nomination.
The fear that Mohapatras expulsion would trigger a large-scale revolt in the BJD has proved to be baseless. Naveen went on the offensive and strongly defended his decision against charges of being mean and undemocratic by accusing Mohapatra of sabotaging the partys prospects and being hand-in-glove with senior Congress leaders. Obviously Patnaik had the backing of his alliance partner, the BJP, and poll observers here feel that the latter was behind the move to oust the pac chairman. Indeed, Union home minister L.K. Advani who was in Bhubaneshwar this week has endorsed Naveen Patnaiks stand while distancing his party from the BJDs internal affairs. Meanwhile, the Orissa Pradesh Congress Committee has gone on record calling Mohapatras expulsion "a rare act of back-stabbing in the entire political history of the state."
Last year, it was Advani who had reportedly intervened to reinstate Mohapatra and five of his supporters who were expelled by Naveen following the dissolution of the pac by the latter. But the situation was different then. The alliance needed Mohapatras support to put up a united front and win the Lok Sabha polls. This time, Mohapatra was a liability. Naveen left Mohapatra no room to manoeuvre. He can only bide his time till the elections are over to make his move. He has declared his intention of "finishing Naveen Patnaik in Orissa". By expelling him Naveen has set him free to campaign openly against the official candidates being put up by the BJP-BJD alliance. But Mohapatra could at best influence the poll outcome in the coastal belt, particularly the six assembly segments in Kendrapada, which is considered his stronghold. Here he will have the support of the dissidents in both parties as well as the Congress. The seat adjustment in the alliance led to resentment at the grassroots level in both the BJD and BJP with local leaders defying party diktat and fielding rebels. While the BJD has the highest number of rebel candidates, the BJP too has seven rebel candidates.
But despite this, political observers feel that the BJD-BJP alliance is on a strong wicket. The combine won 19 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats where it fielded candidates. Added to the anti-incumbency factor working against the ruling Congress is the backdrop of the total lack of progress in restoration and rehabilitation work in the 13 cyclone-affected districts of Orissa that altogether puts the Congress on a very weak footing. While the dissidence in the opposing alliance can divert a section of the votes and lead to triangular contests in some of the seats, it cannot bring the Congress more than a third of the seats at best. The party itself is not free from dissidence-what with as many as 26 rebel candidates having filed their nominations.
The Congress seems resigned to sitting in the opposition this time around. Its only ray of hope is that the rebellion in the rival camp could help it recover some lost ground. As for the BJD-BJP alliance, the question of who will be the chief minister could crop up after the elections. The BJP is apparently grooming either Union minister Jual Oram or senior state leader Biswa Bhusan Harichandan for the post. Naveen Patnaik, obviously, has other ideas and would like to don the mantle. While the two allies have decided to keep the issue on the backburner for now, only the ballot will tell who has come out on top in the leadership race.