Why the rising number of ousted BJD leaders is unlikely to translate into a bigger challenge for the four-time chief minister in the 2019 assembly elections
Over the past few days the political scene of Odisha has been rather heated. There has been a lot of noise, much mudslinging, and copious numbers of conspiracy theories doing the rounds, especially after veteran politician Damodar Rout was shown the door by the Biju Janata Dal on grounds of his alleged anti-party activities.
It is common knowledge that the former minister and seven-time MLA from Paradip had been left smarting after Odisha chief minister and BJD boss Naveen Patnaik sacked him from his ministerial and party vice president posts last year for his reportedly casteist remarks against the Brahmin community that had created quite a furore in the state.
Rout’s formal expulsion this month, however, came just a day after hundreds of BJD workers from Jagatsinghpur district went to Naveen Nivas with written complaints against Rout’s anti-party activities. And that was not long after he made allegations of irregularities and scams in the ruling regime, going even so far as to suggest that the real reins of the BJD government and party were not in the hands of Naveen, but in those of a bureaucrat and a couple of young MLAs.
“Dama babu has always been making irresponsible statements. His allegations are fruitless and ridiculous,” the Chief Minister soon confirmed before the media what was widely speculated to be the reason behind his punitive action against Rout.
By then Rout, with absolutely nothing to lose anymore, had started something he had refrained from doing so far: Accusing Naveen of being directly responsible for what he claimed to be corruption and maladministration in the state and party.
“Is he actually still in the Biju Janata Dal? Does he have moral authority to throw me out of the party? So far, I’ve always had the notion that the coterie around Naveen babu was responsible for the wrongs that had happened in the state under this government, but he was naively oblivious to it all. Now, however, after all that has happened, I have come to firmly believe that such things could not have been possible without his knowledge and permission,” Rout thundered, as he threatened to expose more sordid details of corruption under the BJD administration at the opportune time in the coming days.
“How is it so that the party is replete with people on whose heads the sword of the CBI hangs? Naveen is now working contrary to the principles of Biju Babu to save his position which must be hurting the great man. It will be auspicious for the people of Odisha if the Chief Minister is unseated at the earliest,” stated the man who had held many important ministerial portfolios during the 18 years of BJD rule in Odisha.
At the same time, Rout asserted that he would continue following the ideology of Biju Patnaik, not join any other political party and not retire from active public life, thus making it amply clear that he was going to contest future elections.
So when former Kendrapada MP Baijayant Panda – another prominent BJD leader from the party who had been suspended from the party early this year on similar grounds before he went on to submit his resignation a few months later – called at Rout’s official residence just a day after the latter was expelled, tongues began wagging well and truly in media circles about the possibility of an alternative front shaping up in Odisha to take on the mighty BJD.
In their post-meeting interaction with the media, the two seemed to be on the same page over many things even as they appeared to be playing their cards close to their chest.
Both repeatedly pointed out that the party that was known for taking prompt and stringent action against any act of corruption or any member held responsible for it had now become one that was penalising and weeding out the whistle-blowers instead. Besides, both had been empathetically vocal about the party action taken against the other. Both claimed that with most of the original members gone, the BJD was no longer the party it once was. And neither of them ruled out the possibility of the formation of a political front comprising such members.
Things further heated up within a few days’ time when reports came that Odisha Police had seized Panda’s chopper on charges of its alleged unauthorised flight over the eco-sensitive zone of Chilika lagoon. It was soon revealed that the police action was in response to a complaint lodged by the Chilika Development Authority.
As BJD MLAs staged a demonstration on the premises of the Odisha Legislative Assembly demanding Panda’s arrest, he stated that the Naveen Patnaik administration was trying to falsely implicate and unnecessarily harass him.
“Odisha Police, your illegal seizure of the helicopter may slow me, but can’t stop me from reaching my people,” he tweeted.
Panda also received support from an unlikely quarter on the issue, when Congress chief whip Tara Prasad Bahinipati pointed out that the chopper should have been seized only after the completion of a proper investigation into the matter.
Speaking to the media, Bahinipati expressed puzzlement over why the Chief Minister was allowed to fly on the same zone while others doing the same were accused of breaching the law. “It is a political conspiracy,” he pointed out.
Some political analysts reckon that such developments can catalyse the formation of the anticipated alternative front in Odisha.
There are whispers in political circles and the corridors of power that the Bharatiya Janata Party is looking to capitalise on the current situation to have another shot at dethroning Naveen.
It is being said that the BJP has already begun orchestrating a coming together of former and disgruntled BJD leaders – who had exited the party on an acrimonious note or were expelled from it over the past years or are unhappy within it – in order to build a rival front that could challenge the ruling regime.
Given that these leaders had worked under the the legendary Biju Patnaik in Janata Dal and were virtually the founding members of the BJD, the purported master strategy is to project them as the true upholders of the Biju ideology and the current regime as corrupted pretenders. Besides, with most of these leaders hailing from the coastal belt of Odisha, the idea is also to weaken the vice-like grip of the BJD in the electorally crucial region.
All of these speculations and rumours also hark back to what had happened over two decades ago. The BJP had not just played a key role in the breaking up of the Janata Dal and the setting up of the BJD, but it had also gone on to form an alliance with the fledgling party to first win the majority of the state’s Lok Sabha seats in 1998 general elections and then the Odisha assembly elections in 2000 and 2004.
Most political experts, however, do not see that kind of history repeating itself. The reasons are many.
For one, there is history itself: Even back during the build-up to the 2009 and 2014 assembly elections, speculation had been rife that an alternative regional party led by former BJD members would rise to take on the BJD, possibly with the help of its rival parties. But nothing of the sort ever materialised. So the chances of that happening now in any consequential manner, with the 2019 elections only a few months away, are slim at best.
Then, thanks largely to his enduring image as an incorruptible politician who has dedicated his life to the welfare of his home state, Naveen remains as popular a leader in Odisha as he has ever been during – and despite – his 18 years as chief minister.
The BJD had always faced some corruption accusation or the other over the past decade, but there was nothing that could prove the chief minister’s personal involvement in any. If anything, Naveen had taken prompt action against alleged perpetrators to ensure that his reputation as a political leader having zero tolerance for corruption remained intact. Even at present, when Rout has come out all guns blazing against the BJD boss, none of his accusations have been substantiated yet for those to have any impact on Naveen’s squeaky-clean record. Also, it is yet to be established whether Panda’s chopper was rightly or wrongly seized.
Besides, Naveen still does not come across as a leader who has taken his political position for granted. Apart from his government’s numerous schemes that have been launched and implemented efficiently over the past years to improve the lot of the state’s poor and underprivileged, Naveen has been getting increasingly busy pulling out all the stops to give a big boost to the state’s industry sector as well – from fast-tracking the approval of thousands of crores’ worth of investment proposals, to attending road shows to encourage industries from all over to set up shop in Odisha.
While growing industry is a sure-fire way of creating more employment, which will undoubtedly push up Naveen’s popularity, he recently exceeded expectations by demonstrating his commitment to the environment as well.
On September 17, the Chief Minister launched the pioneering star-rating system for industries, an anti-pollution programme that will involve categorisation of industries from one to five stars depending upon the degree of their compliance to global best-practice pollution standards.
“We are committed towards serving our citizens better and I am very optimistic about this programme that aims to cut pollution. The star rating system will help the public to find out whether industries in their vicinity are fair in their environmental compliance and empower them to strengthen regulations through public participation,” Patnaik said.
Noting that the programme was also meant to identify and reward industries that demonstrated a commitment towards clean environment by not only following environmental regulations but also going beyond the minimum requirements stipulated in those regulations, Naveen expressed belief that the star-rating system would motivate industries to adopt clean technologies.
The four-time Chief Minister seems to be leaving little reason for people not to vote him back to power for a record fifth time. Besides, many political observers point out, there is not a single political leader from the Congress, the BJP or among former BJD members that possesses the stature, the record, or even the promise to stand up to Naveen.
Therefore, when asked about speculations over former BJD leaders forming a new political party ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Naveen responded with his characteristic nonchalance: “Those who want to form a new party, it is their business. It will have no impact in the state.”
The forces that want him out may be planning to strike when the iron is hot. But Naveen remains cool as a cucumber.