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Odisha Elections | Why Does Naveen Patnaik Appear to be on the Back Foot?

Never before has the BJD leadership been in so much conflict in deciding the tickets as has been the case this time.

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No dissension, no revolt against the authority except one insignificant attempt in 2012 which was nipped in the bud. He commanded the unflinching loyalty of his party MPs and MLAs. That sums up the `personality oriented’ leadership of Naveen Patnaik who, unlike his contemporary regional satraps in other states, has never lost a chance to head Odisha in the last 24 years and still is raring to go for his sixth term. A rare record in the history of Indian politics indeed.

It is as weird as it may sound, at this stage, to say that a man who does not speak Odia, though understands every bit of it, still has so much sway over the populace. His faltering Odia written in Roman script tickles his audience to no end even today. Neither the Odiyas mind his lack of knowledge of the mother tongue in spite of being in power for so long nor does he bother to pick up the lingo. Many say it is deliberate lest the enigma about him would fade. Whatever it is, he is the leader of the masses.

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The man who reluctantly entered politics in 1997 at the age of 52 after the demise of his legendary father Biju Patnaik is extremely reticent but polished. A `Bachelor of Arts’, as he once described himself in a telephonic interview with this author 27 years ago, Naveen, a history major from Kirori Mal College, New Delhi has a very charming disposition and can sparkle with his subtle sense of humour and clean English diction. There was a pun intended in how he described himself then – not married and yet his love for arts, heritage and literature is intact. Unlike his father, he prefers to be away from the public glare even after so much success. Another sterling quality in him is that he has never made personal attacks on his adversaries in the opposition.

What made such a successful politician, who has never tasted defeat, go on the back foot in matters of selection of candidates for the twin elections in Odisha this time? Has he lost confidence in his foot soldiers or is he worried about anti-incumbency, factionalism or desertion of hardcore loyalists from Biju Janata Dal (BJD)? Is it the Modi wave that he is struggling to stave off? Perhaps, it is a combination of all these factors.

Never before has the BJD leadership been in so much conflict in deciding the tickets as has been the case this time. Patnaik has dropped eight out of 12 sitting party MPs and 39 out of 111 legislators even though the exercise for the complete list of candidates for the Assembly is yet to be over. A party which was known for its near meticulous assessment of the aspirants for tickets at least a couple of months ahead of elections is apparently finding the task tough this time and hence, heavily relying on party hoppers, mostly from the BJP.

On the flip side, BJP too, has adopted the same method in embracing most of the incumbent BJD MPs and MLAs who have been denied tickets. It is a different matter that Naveen Patnaik has replaced some of his sitting MLAs with their kin and is accused of encouraging dynastic politics that he too is a part of.

The Biju Patnaik legacy, still a high point particularly in coastal Odisha, undeniably helps BJD to win election after election. Ironic as it may sound, Naveen has systematically weeded out the staunch Biju loyalists or the old guard, many of whom are dead, from BJD and infusing new blood willing to be `yes men’ not questioning his authority or style of functioning. BJD has gone for a serious makeover.

While the first of the four-phase polling starts on 13 May in the state, Naveen and Union Home Minister Amit Shah have launched their high-voltage campaign from Hinjli and Sonepur respectively making it clear that each is after the other’s blood.

Development, as usual, is the common thread and each promising to make Odisha the number one state if voted to power – BJP in five years and BJD in the next 12 years. "Development is our identity," asserted Patnaik berating the opposition parties for obstructing it. Apart from listing out the slew of welfare measures his government has launched, Naveen announced that a “Youth Budget” would be introduced which will focus on industrial investment, employment generation and skill development, with a clear intention to attract the youths.

Trashing BJD’s development plank, Shah thundered that Odisha has lost 25 years under Naveen Patnaik government by way of rising unemployment, migration, drinking water crisis, failure in agriculture, looting of mineral resources, and worsening law and order among other things. Interestingly, he was reported to have acknowledged, in a closed-door meeting with MP and MLA candidates on Thursday, that there was confusion among the party workers and leadership in the state that there is a `friendly relationship’ with BJD but dismissed it while exhorting all to give their best to get BJP in power. This clarification has come a little too late for any miracle to happen.

(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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