Beyond Bhadrak: Political Ground Beneath Naveen’s Feet is Shifting

The Assembly elections in Odisha are still two years away. But Naveen Patnaik, the man who won four successive elections so far appears to have given up already. That was the distinct impression the BJD MPs got on Monday after attending a meeting with the chief minister on Monday at Parliament.

The BJD supremo, who once inspired awe among party leaders, could do no more than appeal to his bickering MPs not to fight their personal battles in the public space
as MP after MP reeled out a litany of grievances, reliable sources privy to the deliberations told The Quint.

Also Read: Curfew Relaxed For 6 Hours in Bhadrak, Social Media Blocked

Naveen Losing Grip

That Naveen is losing his grip over the party and the government has, however, been evident even before the meeting with party MPs on Monday.

Even as Bhadrak was burning with communal fire, the chief minister, who also happens to be the home minister of the state, quietly left for Delhi on Friday afternoon, leaving the riot-hit town in the hands of his officials, even though his first official engagement in the national capital included the standing committee meeting of the Inter State Council on Sunday.

No wonder the officials messed up big time – as the senior BJD leader and MP from Bhadrak Arjun Sethi complained bitterly at the meeting with Naveen on Monday –allowing a crisis that could have been solved in the first few hours to fester
for nearly a week now.

Security personnel conduct a flag march in Odisha’s Bhadrak after communal tension erupted following a derogatory Facebook post on 9 April 2017. (Photo: IANS)

Overdependence on Bureaucrats

Always happy to have someone else, more often than not, a bureaucrat, to run the party on his behalf, Naveen suddenly finds he has no one to lean on. For a good twelve years, it was former bureaucrat Pyarimohan Mohapatra who ran the party and also played the role of troubleshooter at large for the government – and quite efficiently – before his ambition got the better of him.

For some time after Mohapatra’s departure in disgrace, it was former chief secretary Bijay Kumar Patnaik who played the same role. After Patnaik’s retirement, a bureaucrat in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) has been running the show on both the fronts.

But in the wake of the panchayat poll debacle, the BJD supremo appears to have realised the folly of overdependence on bureaucrats and has started handling party-related matters himself, something that he has never quite had an aptitude for.

If the grapevine is to be believed, Naveen, always the man who has looked for a scapegoat to suppress his own acts of omission and commission, has already decided to dump his trusted bureaucrat, who, by the way, is being aggressively wooed by the BJP government at the Centre.

Also Read: Bhadrak Unrest: 35 Platoons, 300 Paramilitary Personnel Deployed

Infighting Adds to Naveen’s Woes

The man who once wielded the axe at the drop of a hat is now unable to even chide party leaders, who fight among themselves publicly, in gross violation of party discipline – as happened in the Twitter war between Dhenkanal MP Tathgata Satpathy and Kendrapara MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda.

Satpathy accused Panda, without naming him, of working in cahoots with the BJP, to cause a split in the BJD. Panda retaliated by raking up Satpathy’s past acts of indiscipline, which had earned him a suspension, and then followed it up with an article in a leading Odia daily Samaj which accused Naveen of tolerating the corrupt and ‘criminal elements’ in the party.

In the past, such an act by a party leader would have earned him at least a suspension, if not an outright expulsion. But such is Naveen’s helplessness at the moment
that he did not even refer to it at the meeting with MPs on Monday, choosing to restrict himself to an appeal to the MPs not to go public with their differences.

Also Read: BJD MPs Satpathy & Panda Spar Over BJP ‘Trying to Split the Party’

Cabinet Reshuffle Postponed

The same reluctance to act has seen Biju era veteran and Excise Minister Damodar Rout shoot his mouth off, and go against the party line on a number of occasions in the recent past without being admonished once. The irrepressible Rout had the cheek to rail against the proposed farm loan waiver just a day after Naveen himself said his government was considering the option.

The long overdue reshuffle of his council of ministers has been postponed indefinitely for the same reason. If party insiders are to be believed, Naveen apprehends that disturbing the status quo at this juncture would create more problems. As a result, those accused of corruption and inefficiency continue to enjoy their
ministerial perks.

Naveen Patnaik seems to be fraught with an existential crisis as infighting continues to ail the BJD. (Photo: IANS)

Rift Prevalent at the Lowest Levels

It is not as if the rift within the BJD is restricted to the top echelons. One of the major reasons for the below par performance of the party in the zila parishad (ZP) elections in February was the profusion of rebels who sealed the fate of BJD candidates by fighting as independents or – worse still – switching over to the BJP’s side.

After the elections, former MP and president of the Koraput district unit of BJD Jayram Pangi openly accused party observers, including one of Naveen’s trusted ministers, of bribery after his man was denied the post of ZP president.

In Jagatsinghpur, BJD MLA Rajashree Mallick accused the district president Bishnu Das of ‘abducting’ two of her supporters to deny her man the post of vice chairperson of the local panchayat samiti. The fear of action – or of Naveen – clearly does not deter BJD leaders anymore.

Also Read: BJD’s War Within Escalates as Party MP Jay Panda Targets Naveen

A Coup on the Cards?

With a resurgent BJP breathing constantly down his neck, Naveen is now at his wit’s end wondering how to stop the saffron party from making further inroads in the state.

After his own party MP talked openly about the BJP’s efforts to break the BJD, it is no more a secret that the erstwhile ally has now decided to go for the jugular in its bid to
dethrone Naveen in 2019. The national executive meeting of the party scheduled in Bhubaneswar between 15-16 April is expected to prepare a blueprint for capturing power in the state in forthcoming elections.

In the aftermath of the debacle of sorts in the panchayat elections, Naveen has talked of ‘introspection’ and promised an overhaul of both the party and the government. But that could well be a case of too little too late.

(The writer is a senior Bhubaneswar-based journalist and has reported for the BBC for the last twenty years. 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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