When Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik expelled veteran leader and former minister Damodar Rout from the party late on Wednesday evening, it didn’t really come as a surprise. In fact, Rout himself had said on Wednesday morning that he was not with BJD anymore, making it clear that he had braced himself for the inevitable.
Rout’s expulsion follows an all too familiar pattern that has seen some of the leading lights of the BJD, who were once close associates of the late Biju Patnaik, Naveen’s father and the man after whom the party is named, out of the party. The last of them to be shown the door before Rout was former Kendrapara MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda.
While the motor mouth leader’s utterances frequently embarrassed the party and the government even when he was a minister, Rout’s latest tirade has hurt the government and the party chief where it hurts the most. In the last one week or so, Rout raised one serious corruption charge after another against the government, besides alleging that a coterie consisting of ‘an officer and three MLAs’ is running both the party and the government.
It was a clever strategy by the veteran leader, who literally begged to be expelled so that he could claim later that he was sacked because he raised corruption issues. The officer in question, V Kathikeyan Pandian, the Chief Minister’s private secretary, has been both Naveen’s strength and his Achilles’ heel. It is an open secret in Odisha that Naveen, who never had an appetite for looking after the nitty gritty of the party and the government, has outsourced the job to his trusted officer. Pandian is playing the same role that Pyari Mohan Mohpatra, the retired IAS officer better known as ‘Chanakya’ in Odisha’s political circles, played for nearly a decade before his ambition got the better of him in May, 2012, when he planned a coup against Naveen Patnaik that went wrong.
Now that he is no more with the BJD, there is intense speculation over Rout’s next move. He himself gave away very little in his reaction after the expulsion, saying he would remain in public life – and even contest the next election – but not join any other party. But the grapevine has it that his calculated move to secure his own exit from the ruling party is part of a move by Biju loyalists, who have either left the party on their own or have been shown the door by Naveen, to form a new regional party that would fight the next elections in alliance, overt or covert, with the BJP.
Significantly, BJP had adopted the same strategy in 1997 to get a foothold in the state. After Biju Panaik’s death, the BJP engineered a split in the erstwhile Janata Dal and tied up with it to fight the 1998 general elections together with stunning results. The alliance won as many as 16 out of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state, marking the beginning of the end of Congress rule in the state.
While engineering a split in the BJD looks an extremely difficult proposition at this stage, there is no denying that there is a lot of disgruntlement in the BJD. Those not happy with the way the party and the government are being run and those who are likely to lose out on a party ticket this time can be trusted to jump fence at an opportune moment before the polls. On his part, Naveen would need all his political skills and acumen to keep his flock together till the elections.
Either way, Odisha is in for some interesting times in the run up to the next election.