Elections are due in the state in April 2024 and general elections. BJD will become the third longest-serving political party in power in any state after the Left Front in West Bengal and BJP in Gujarat when it completes its fifth stint in 2024. The party is still going strong, sweeping the local body polls held earlier this year and winning both the by-polls(Brajarajnagar and Padampur) by huge margins.
Biju Janata Dal(BJD) begins its week-long Silver Jubilee Foundation Day celebrations from 26 December in Puri.
The party is largely a one-man show winning election after election due to the charisma of Naveen Patnaik who has been benefitting from the legacy of his father Biju Patnaik.
He is very similar to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in many ways. A bachelor, he gains sympathy from the voters as he has nobody around to take care of leading him to enjoy a non-corruptible, clean image.
He may retire after 2024 due to old age. However, he has not made his plans clear. Without a family or a relative successor, BJD could face a leadership crisis and war for control post his retirement.
No Political Alternative to BJD in Odisha
The party is largely a one-man show winning election after election due to the charisma of Naveen Patnaik who has been benefitting from the legacy of his father Biju Patnaik. “Naveen Babu” as he is fondly called, is currently, the third longest-serving Chief Minister(CM) of India.
By the time Odisha goes to polls in April 2024, he will surpass Pawan Kumar Chamling to become the longest-serving CM. He is the third oldest CM of India currently and will be 77 years old by the next state polls. Naveen continues to remain popular. The party has been benefitting from a split in the opposition votes between Congress and the BJP.
The party’s principal opposition is now the BJP which has replaced the Congress in this field. Both parties do not have a leader who can match up to the popularity of Naveen who is considered a 'messiah' by the poor and downtrodden and was ranked as the most popular CM at the state level in a survey in August.
Why Naveen Patnaik Is a ‘Mini-Modi’
He is very similar to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in many ways. A bachelor, he gains sympathy from the voters as he has nobody around to take care of leading him to enjoy a non-corruptible, clean image. He runs the government from the CMO just like the PM does from the PMO. He contests presidential-style elections, seeking votes in his name, and exhorting people to not look at the candidate.
There is no strong second-rung leadership in BJD, many of Naveen’s detractors including Pyarimohan Mahapatra, Bijoy Mohapatra, and Baijayant Panda have left or been forced to leave the party.
It is very difficult for national-level journalists to name five big leaders of the BJD apart from Naveen. He changes and drops candidates at will in the elections. In fact, he did a Modi move in Odisha, dropping 12 out of 21 ministers and revamping his cabinet in June 2022. People love him for his simplicity, despite Naveen not speaking very fluent Odia.
He has managed to establish a connection with the voters through his pro-poor schemes. Before the 2014 polls, he launched a scheme to provide subsidised rice to the poor at Re 1/kg, which covers more than half the number of households in the state.
Before the 2019 polls, he launched the Rs 10,000 crore KALIA (Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation) Scheme for farmers which cover 92% of state cultivators. He has also developed a solid woman vote bank by providing Rs 5 lakh interest-free loans to Self Help Groups(SHGs) which have 70 lakh women enrolled as its members.
Can BJD Maintain Its Well-Balanced Politics and Hegemony in the State?
Naveen knows his limitations for he has never nurtured Prime Ministerial ambitions. He has always maintained good relations with the central government, be it the UPA or the NDA.
One of the poorest states of India, Odisha requires financial resources and support from the central government. He has been providing issue-based support to NDA though officially not part of it and even bailed the government on important bills in the Rajya Sabha where the BJP doesn’t have a majority.
Congress has attacked the BJD for being the B-Team of the BJP. He has a non-controversial image and you never see him being part of any united opposition talks. Publicly, he has successfully maintained an equidistant approach from both the BJP and Congress.
Whether there has been development in Odisha under the BJD’s regime is a hotly-debated topic. Odisha tops the list of State Ranking Index for implementation of the National Food Security Act, 2013.
The NITI Aayog's report on the performance of states on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2020-21 has placed Odisha in the bottom five states in the country. While many people have moved out of poverty, the state remains largely rural with per capita income still lower than the national average.
Will Naveen Get an Able Political Successor To Keep BJP & Congress in Check?
BJD is a strong favourite to win the 2024 state elections. There is no perceptible, strong anti-incumbency. The 'There Is No Alternative' (TINA) factor is an added advantage for the BJD.
Being a simultaneous poll, Naveen Babu benefits and is likely to win the highest number of seats even in the Lok Sabha, as differential voting is not common in India as evidenced in the past. Naveen could call it out as his last election, thus, benefiting from a sympathy factor, and likely to win riding on Odia asmita or pride.
However, the bigger question in everyone’s minds including the BJD cadre and supporters is what after 2024? Who after Naveen retires? What is the future of the BJD?
Naveen has not named his successor. In regional parties in India, family control is very important, it acts as a glue to keep the ambition of leaders in check and keep the party united.
He may retire after 2024 due to old age. However, he has not made his plans clear. Without a family or a relative successor, BJD could face a leadership crisis and war for control post his retirement. This is what Congress and BJP hope to encash. Post-retirement, there could be chaos in the party, BJP could strike and BJD could see an exodus of MLAs. BJP hopes old-timers Bijoy and Baijayant could facilitate a split.
Naveen is aware of this. He knows that while his favourite bureaucrats can run the government, they can’t win elections. BJD needs a face after Naveen retires. Will he announce a successor or lay down a roadmap of passing on the baton in the future? It is easier to force a succession plan while you are in power. Naveen will have to give time to the new leader to gain acceptability among cadre/leader/supporters. While it is time for celebrations, clarity is required about what lies ahead of the party, and what are its future plans. Who will continue to lead the legacy of Biju and Naveen?
(The author is an independent political commentator and can be reached at @politicalbaaba. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)