People talk of ‘clutching at straws’. Naveen Patnaik, for a change, has clutched at ‘Fani’, an ‘extremely severe cyclonic storm’ in the Bay of Bengal likely to hit the Odisha coast on the afternoon of May 3, in his desperate, scarcely veiled effort to keep his bete noire Bijoy Mohapatra away from the Odisha Assembly. In a move that has invited both amusement and derision back home, the Odisha Chief Minister met the Election Commission of India (ECI) in New Delhi on Tuesday ‘and urged it to postpone the election for the Patkura assembly constituency in view of the impending cyclone that is likely to affect Kendrapara district of which Patkura is a part’.
“The Commission assured me that they would look into it seriously,” Naveen told media persons after meeting the ECI. For those wondering about the connection between the two, Mohapatra is the BJP candidate in Patkura.
Naveen’s earlier attempt to stall the election in Patkura had succeeded, but only partially. In a move that defied logic, the BJD supremo first nominated Bed Prakash Agrawala, an 82-year old dying man fighting for his life in the ICU of a Bhubaneswar hospital and then refused to budge when the wife and son of the veteran leader met him and pleaded for the ticket for Patkura to be given to someone else in the family.
Agrawala breathed his last on April 20 morning, nine days before the polls in Patkura, necessitating the rescheduling of the election in the constituency. However, the Election Commission rescheduled the election to May 19, the last round of polling in the ongoing Lok Sabha elections.
But this obviously did not suit Naveen’s plans. He had perhaps calculated that the election in Patkura would be held well after his new government is firmly in saddle so that he could focus all his attention on this stand alone election. With his plans gone awry, the Chief Minister pulled out his Plan B after the IMD predicted that cyclone Fani would have a landfall somewhere on the Puri coast on Friday afternoon.
The importance of having the Patkura election postponed further for Naveen is evident in the fact that meeting the ECI, rather than Central authorities to ask for help in rescue and relief measures for cyclone Fani, was the only item in his day’s agenda in the national capital. Come to think of it. The cyclone will hit Odisha on May 3. The election in Patkura is on May 19, full 16 days later. And while Kendrapara will certainly be affected, it is not where the landfall is going to take place. Citing the cyclone to seek postponement of the polls in Patkura, therefore, does look rather specious.
Exasperated at the lengths – and depths - to which Naveen has gone to stall him, Bijoy Mohapatra on Tuesday dared him to contest against him in Patkura instead of beating around the bush. “There is still time for it,” he said, responding to the Chief Minister’s decision to meet the ECI in this regard. Naveen has already named Sabitri Agrawala, Bed Prakash’ widow, as the BJD candidate in Patkura in what is a clear move to ride on the ‘sympathy wave’ for the late leader. Sabitri duly filed her nomination on Tuesday. But Naveen’s move shows that he is unable to rely fully on this ‘wave’, not to speak of the formidable might of his party in what has been its bastion for ages, in his desire to stop Mohapatra.
Mohapatra, however, is no stranger to such intrigue. On the last day of filing nominations for the 2000 Assembly elections (when Naveen was yet to become Chief Minister), Mohapatra, who was distributing tickets to others in his capacity as the chairman of the BJD Political Affairs Committee (PAC), was stunned to find that his ticket had been cancelled and given to Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, a young, fresh entrant to politics, instead. With no time left to reach Kendrapara and file fresh nomination as an independent, Mohapatra decided to back Trilochan Behera of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) who went on to win the election with his support. But instead of vacating the seat for the out of favour, Behera decided to cross over to the ruling party BJD. From then on, Mohapatra has run up against the might, guile and trickery of Naveen – not to speak of the entire party and government machinery - every time he has fought an election. He even left Patkura and moved over to neighbouring Mahakalpada in 2009 and 2014 in his efforts to enter the Assembly, but to no avail.
All eyes from now on will be on what decision the ECI eventually takes on Naveen’s plea and how Mohapatra meets this no-holds-barred onslaught from the man, who looks set to win power for the fifth successive term.