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In Odisha, Modi and the BJP are Out to Get Naveen Patnaik. Can He Hold Them Off?

Recently, Modi launched a personal assault on Patnaik, challenging him to name Odisha's 30 districts.

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An election campaign has never been so intense and interesting in Odisha in the last 24 years. From all angles, it looks like a do-or-die battle for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). Both parties are expending all their might and resources as the BJD tries for a sixth straight term and the BJP for the first time on its own, i.e., independent of an alliance with the BJD.

In their no-holds-barred campaign, neither side is letting go of any opportunity to attack the other, a phenomenon witnessed never before in the state.

Given the love-hate-love relationship between the two parties in all these years, the belligerence on display during meetings and roadshows is quite amusing, and the public is having their share of the fun.

To the voters, both parties are two sides of the same coin, with each promising them the moon in almost identical ways.

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BJP is Hunting in a Pack for Naveen Patnaik’s Scalp

With the Congress party hardly making its presence felt in this high-decibel struggle for power, the BJP is seriously focusing on wresting the state and seems to have prepared a well-calibrated campaign with a lineup consisting of its central stalwarts and some chief ministers of saffron-ruled states. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has already addressed four public meetings besides a roadshow in Bhubaneswar during his back-to-back visits a few days ago, and is scheduled to have another roadshow in Puri on 20 May.

This election, the BJP is hunting in a pack for Naveen Patnaik’s scalp and has made the chief minister's reported lack of knowledge of Odia and Odisha their main poll plank, besides targeting VK Pandian, calling him an "outsider and a non-Odia" for his "overbearing interference" in matters of the state's governance.

Pandian, a former bureaucrat-turned-politician, is Naveen’s dedicated right-hand man, enjoying enormous power in the party. He is virtually the second-in-command and Patnaik’s compelling dependence on him for everything has become an eyesore. The Opposition keeps on questioning the unbridled authority bestowed upon an "outsider", thereby highlighting the chief minister’s weakness.

The revival of the Odia pride, language, and culture, the non-utilisation of central funds, and the hijacking of NDA (National Democratic Alliance) welfare schemes "touted" as the BJD’s own are among the other issues that the BJP is pressing to garner public support amidst the BJD's counterclaim of the usual all-round neglect by the central government. However, such rhetoric does not seem to influence the voters very much.

Eventually, it is Naveen's charisma against Modi's personality cult that will determine the broad voting pattern. Naveen's announcement of free power supply to 90 percent of the families as his new government's "first order" could be a game-changer in the context of other abstract poll promises.

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Modi's Ad Hominems and Pandian's Counterattack

Strange as it may sound, the symbiotic relationship that Modi and Patnaik shared in the last decade went for a toss when the prime minister launched a personal assault, taunting the latter to name Odisha's 30 districts, including their "capitals", without the help of a note, accusing the chief minister of being "unaware" of the issues of the people.

Similarly, the prime minister asked the voters of Kantabanji, the second seat from where Naveen is seeking election to the Assembly in western Odisha, to dare the CM to name 10 villages of the constituency. While Modi predicted 4 June to be the "expiry date" of the Patnaik government and invited all to the BJP’s swearing-in ceremony on 10 June, Naveen simply dismissed the claim as a mere "daydream".

Most of the counter-offensive to BJP’s blitzkrieg, however, has come single-handedly from VK Pandian, who termed the saffron leaders of the central government as "tourists" out to hoodwink the people of the state. Pandian, the lone ranger of the BJD, has assumed complete responsibility for the party’s campaign to ensure another electoral victory and he seems to be confident of the same.

Naveen Patnaik would romp home with a three-fourths majority because of his good deeds and pro-people measures, he has been asserting time and again while taking on the BJP's onslaught, be it from the prime minister or Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan who is contesting for the Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat. The periodic spar between Pandian and Pradhan is very engaging. He is unfazed by the tag of an outsider and a non-Odia, or by the allegations that he has been promoting Tamilians in all spheres of work in the state.

While both the principal opponents swear on the development and transformation of Odisha into the number one state in the country if voted to power, a new metaphor in the shape of a locomotive engine has taken centre-stage in the campaign. It is the BJP’s "double engine" (Assembly and Lok Sabha) against the "Naveen engine".

Comical as it may seem, Pandian described the double engine as an engine of "deception" and the other as an engine that provides actual services. However, the ringside view of the ongoing fight between the BJP and the BJD came from senior Congress party leader Jairam Ramesh, who termed their poll-induced animosity as a "fake boxing match."

He could be right.

(Srimoy Kar is a senior journalist based in Odisha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:  odisha   Naveen Patnaik 

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