The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) refused to lay down arms in West Bengal ever since it spied an opening for its growth in 2016. The BJP realised that its eastern “conquest” will be incomplete unless it sallied forth and established itself as a force in Bengal. Its ambitions were realised partially in the Assembly elections but the BJP’s sway over the East awaits another takeover: that of Odisha, a state with which its engagement has been inconsistent.
Odisha beckons and how! The road to its political annexation is riddled with challenges and dilemmas, arising largely from the BJP’s inability to deal with its political complexities. Not the least of its problems is Naveen Patnaik, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president and Odisha chief minister, who is perhaps India’s savviest, though underrated politician. Unlike the easy-to-read-and-gauge Mamata Banerjee, Patnaik is an enigma, who conceals more than he reveals.
He has run circles around the BJP so agilely that the party’s fabled Chanakya was hard up to put in place a clear strategy for Odisha: should the BJP confront Patnaik at full throttle or go soft because in Parliament, the BJD’s large contingent of MPs invariably bails out the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition in crunch situations, with no overt strings attached.
The Tricky BJP-Patnaik Equation
One example going back to 2019, before the Lok Sabha elections, will illustrate the tricky BJP-Patnaik equation. On Republic Day eve, the government awarded Padma Shri to writer Gita Mehta, Patnaik’s US-based sister. Read in concert with the Bharat Ratna conferred upon Pranab Mukherjee and Bhupendra Hazarika, Assam’s cultural icon, the choices suggested that soft power was at work in the BJP’s pursuit of a Look East policy after it exhausted the sops and freebies showered on the region. Gita declined the award. It was probably too close to the general election, in which her brother was expected to be a pivotal figure in any scenario. Patnaik’s “equidistance” policy—which notionally meant maintaining equal distance from the Congress and the BJP—did not endorse a gesture that might insinuate proximity to the BJP central leadership.
The BJP’s dilemma was manifestly clear during the Prime Minister’s visit to Odisha in December 2018. Days before the trip, the state BJP had released a “chargesheet”, listing three dozen corruption allegations against Patnaik including mega mining and chit fund scams. The PM, however, shared the dais with Patnaik while releasing a stamp and coin to commemorate the Paika rebellion.
When Baijayant Jay Panda, a former BJD MP and a once-close associate of Patnaik, fell out and left with the expectation that the BJP will embrace him instantly, the BJP kept him waiting for quite some time, did not give him the Rajya Sabha berth he expected and accommodated him as a national vice-president and spokesperson in the central party organisation. The Patnaik principle is to be nice to a ruling party at the Centre to keep the Odisha engine oiled and running and get combative in the elections.
The BJD endorsed the Citizenship Amendment Bill and the reading down of Article 370 without paying a political price because Odisha has a 2.1 per cent Muslim population that didn’t react to the Act. On the other hand, in return for the support, Patnaik—cash-strapped to fund his ambitious welfare schemes after May 2019’s Cyclone Fani—agreed to let the Centre underwrite part of the KRUSHAK project for the farmers, knowing well that the BJP was adept at stealing the credit in an election. The BJP couldn’t in the end.
It made another concession to Patnaik. It withdrew its candidate, Ashwini Vaishnaw, for membership of AIIMS, Bhubaneswar, managing committee to facilitate a win for the BJD nominee, Amar Patnaik. When the BJD ratified the candidacies of Ram Nath Kovind and Harivansh Narayan Singh for the President and the Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson’s posts respectively, it hurt the BJP on the ground because its Odisha’s cadre was confused about where it stood vis-a-vis the BJD: friend or adversary? The quandary persists.
A Campaign to Pin down Patnaik?
The BJP has to live with the baggage of the past, where for 10 years it rode piggyback on the BJD as a junior partner, barely registering a presence in the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. When the duo parted, it was on Patnaik’s terms. He severed ties with the BJP before the 2009 elections because of the Sangh fraternity’s alleged role in instigating the Adivasis to attack and kill Christians in Kandhamal in August 2008. A breakthrough of sorts came in the 2017 panchayat polls when the BJP bagged 297 of the 846 zilla parishad seats and eight zilla parishads in 30 districts—an exponential rise from just 36 seats in 2012. The BJD was still on top but the BJP pushed the Congress to a distant third in the rural polls. The BJP’s showing was a wake-up call for Patnaik before the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Much of the BJP’s gains in 2019 accrued from the Congress, just like the Left’s decline in West Bengal ran parallel to the BJP’s emergence. It won eight of the 20 Lok Sabha seats and raised its vote share from 21.88 per cent to 38.37 per cent, a jump of 16.49 per cent. However, the BJP’s goal of “Mission 120” in the Assembly polls remained unfulfilled as Patnaik came out trumps, winning 112 of the 147 seats and posting a marginal increase in the BJD’s vote share. The BJP was left with 23 seats but its vote share rose from 17.99 per cent to 32.49 per cent.
The Congress could never take advantage of the peculiar BJD-BJP equation because Patnaik restricted the Opposition space. The assembly elections are scheduled to be held in 2024 but the indications are that the BJP will put its nose to the grindstone. It has been unable to build political capital on the Adivasi-Christian “conflict” despite the large network that Sangh Parivar constituents such as the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have created.
Most important, the BJP will have to work on a campaign to pin down Patnaik with the clarity and intensity with which it went about cornering Manik Sarkar in Tripura and Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal. Odisha BJP sources conceded that they will have to zero in on a regional face as a Patnaik counter. A consensus of sorts emerged around projecting central minister Dharmendra Pradhan, but the project is yet to take off.
Radhika Ramaseshan is a senior journalist. She was the political editor at The Telegraph. Views expressed are personal.