Will BJP Form Next Govt In Odisha As Suggested By Shivraj Chouhan?

Will Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s prediction that BJP will form the next govt in Odisha, come true?

5 min read
Image of Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, and the BJP symbol in a tug-of-war, used for representational purposes.

Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the Convener of the BJP’s ongoing national membership drive and ex-Madhya Pradesh CM, was in Odisha on Sunday, 11 August, and came down heavily on the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government in the state, blaming CM Naveen Patnaik (and the Congress) for ‘doing little’ to develop Odisha.

Chouhan also targeted Patnaik for not having picked the Odia language despite nearly two decades at the state’s helm, expressed confidence that his party (BJP) would form the next government in Odisha, and suggested that Patnaik’s support to the BJP-led NDA (on some of its recent controversial manoeuvres) had only amounted to a basic and expected nationalist position — and did not merit reciprocal generosity when it came to matters of pursuing Odisha’s interests.

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BJD’s Support Counted At A Time When Ruling BJP Was Under Fire

A couple of days earlier, BJP leaders in Odisha had raised fresh questions about Patnaik’s health, and alluded to his consequently ‘diminished capacities’ for leading the state.

Clearly, Patnaik should not be expecting the BJP to go easy on him, going forward.

This is not something the Odisha CM would have expected when he stood with the NDA government recently on three much-debated pieces of legislation, and proposals to re-organise the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

The bills’ passage in the Lok Sabha (LS), where the ruling coalition enjoys a majority, was expected. What came as a surprise though was how all the three bills cleared the Rajya Sabha (RS) hurdle, where the numbers favour the Opposition. And it was in the RS and outside Parliament that the BJD support mattered.

Of course, the BJD is not the only Opposition party to have backed the government’s proposals for J&K and, after a Congress volte face, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) Amendment Bill too would have cleared the RS hurdle without BJD support.

Nevertheless, the BJD’s support counted at a time when the government’s position was under fire.

Importantly, the BJD voted with the treasury benches when it came to seeing the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights in Marriage) Bill and the Right to Information (Amendment) Bill through the RS.

The BJD then, will feature prominently in the story of how the NDA managed to rally the numbers in the RS, and how the Opposition failed to capitalise on its own collective strength to stymie bills with genuine issues around them.

Patnaik’s Political Pattern: De-Fanging The Stronger Of 2 National Opponents

The BJD’s conduct might appear curious, given that the BJP is presently its principal threat in home state Odisha, but actually speaks of the political canniness and survival instincts that have made BJD President Naveen Patnaik the rare Indian CM to have notched five consecutive assembly election wins, that too in contest against the country’s two largest parties.

Patnaik’s politics over the years has followed a pattern, centering on de-fanging the stronger of his two national opponents.

When the Congress was his main rival, the BJD allied with the BJP. This worked for the BJD in 2000, the first assembly election it ever contested after its formation in December 1997, and in 2004. On both occasions, a BJD-BJP coalition government came to power in Odisha despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party by vote share.

In 2009, Patnaik snapped off ties with the BJP. Though his action was said to be in response to his erstwhile ally’s role in the anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal in 2008, disagreements over seat-sharing may have played a major part in the decision too. If an anti-minority position was so riling to the BJD, a review of ties should have occurred back in 2002 itself.

Whatever be the real reason, it is likely that Patnaik calculated that this party had gained enough momentum to take on chief opponent Congress alone, and saw little point in shoring up an ambitious ally.

The 2009 assembly election results bore this out, with the Congress vote share dipping nearly five percentage points, and the BJD’s picking nearly eleven percentage points from 2004 levels. The BJP’s vote share gains over this period were relatively modest.

Naveen Patnaik’s Efforts In Denying BJP A Chance To Polarise

In the post-2014 Narendra Modi era, when the BJP emerged as his principal opponent, Patnaik changed tack to the extent that he didn’t consider joining hands with the Congress, an adversary he had emasculated with some effort to take on the BJP, but his larger strategy – of de-fanging his key rival – remains unchanged.

Aware that the BJP’s expansion efforts in the so-called ‘sunrise states’ tend to build on emotional planks, Patnaik has tried denying the BJP any polarisation opportunity – by siding with the BJP on potentially polarising issues.

He endorsed the demonetisation decision and GST proposal at a time when almost every non-NDA party was railing against them, and has now broken ranks with the Opposition to support three controversial bills.

In recent years, the BJD has also extended support to the NDA in the presidential polls, and the election of the RS deputy speaker, and did not participate in an Opposition-led no-confidence motion. In siding with the BJP on certain issues, Patnaik is also aware that he has much to gain (in terms of not alienating the Hindu vote) and little to lose (given the low Muslim and Christian population – about five percent combined – in Odisha).

What Naveen Patnaik Must Worry About: His Legacy & BJP’s Increasing Attention Towards Odisha

The denial of the polarisation opportunity to the BJP, together with Patnaik’s image of an earnest, clean leader and the Congress’s inability to pick itself up, worked for the BJD in 2019. The BJP did improve its LS seat tally from Odisha, but the BJD pretty much continues to dominate the assembly.

So far, so good, but some things must worry Patnaik. The BJP, given its hegemonic designs, is going to turn attention in earnest to Odisha sooner or later.

And given the creative and no-quarter-given approach the BJP has been taking in recent years, it is unlikely that Patnaik’s conciliatory stances will be enough to protect the citadel. Chouhan’s salvos may just be the precursor to a heavier roll-out of the artillery.

Assuming that Patnaik, among Indian politics’ great survivors, will manage to hold on a bit longer, there is still the question of whether the BJD will be able to withstand the onslaught once Patnaik, now 72-years-old, hangs up his boots.

There is little to suggest that Patnaik has invested in grooming a second line of leadership.

Lastly, there is the question of legacy. Patnaik will most certainly go down in the history books for his longevity as CM, his formidable electoral record against the country’s largest parties, and the sharp political instincts behind his insouciant façade. He is also likely to go down as an abettor of terrible human rights violations, if some of the fears over the bills his party has helped see through in the budget session of 2019, come true.

(Manish Dubey is a policy analyst and crime fiction writer and can be contacted at @ManishDubey1972. 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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