Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik was among the few opposition leaders conspicuous by their absence at the swearing-in ceremony of HD Kumaraswamy in Bengaluru on Wednesday.
Also missing from the event were Telangana CM and Telangana Rashtra Samiti (TRS) chief K Chandrashekar Rao, who has been working towards the formation of a non-BJP, non-Congress Federal Front ahead of the 2019 general elections in tandem with West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress (TMC) chief Mamata Banerjee.
But KCR and Naveen gave the coronation of Kumaraswamy a miss for entirely different reasons. While KCR has skipped the Bengaluru do to avoid sharing the dais with the Gandhis, Naveen has stayed away to avoid being seen on the wrong side of the Modi government. Had that not been the case, Naveen would have at least sent someone to represent his party, as he has done on other such occasions in the past.
When news broke last month that KCR would meet Naveen in Bhubaneswar in the first week of May, the would-be host was quick to scotch any speculation about the Federal Front move, saying; “As far as I know, the Telangana CM is going on a pilgrimage to Puri. On the way, he is paying a courtesy call. There will be no discussion on a Federal Front or anything to do with politics for the matter.” Significantly, even the ‘courtesy call’ did not materialise!
Right from the moment the BJP swept to power and Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, the BJD supremo has stayed clear of any grouping that could be even remotely seen as anti-BJP, anti-Modi even as he has kept up his anti-BJP rhetoric going because of domestic political compulsions. The BJD has also supported the NDA government on issues like demonestisation and GST and helped it pass some crucial legislation.
The Modi government has paid back by not ordering a CBI probe into the mega mining scam as recommended by the Justice MB Shah Commission that put the loot at Rs 60, 000 crore. Even the ongoing CBI probe, ordered by the Supreme Court, into the massive chit fund scam is meandering along for years after turning the heat on some top BJD leaders in the first few months.
Naveen knows he cannot afford to incur the wrath of the Modi government because it can let the CBI loose again. The noora kushti (fixed match) arrangement works just fine for both sides. While the BJD and the BJP maintain the charade of being engaged in a no-holds-barred battle in Odisha, Naveen enjoys an excellent relationship with the BJP bosses in Delhi. Meanwhile, his government keeps getting laurels after laurels from the central government. [It has just been adjudged the No. 1 state in skill development by the Centre.]
Curiously, Naveen is doing precisely what he did for 10 years during the UPA rule: have excellent relationships with the top leaders of the party that rules at the Centre while maintaining the pretense of fighting the same party in Odisha. Of late, the BJD and the Congress have started inching closer in Odisha. At least two senior leaders of the Congress – former Union Railway minister Bhakta Charan Das and former Odisha minister Sarat Rout – have publicly said their party was not averse to joining hands with the BJD to keep the BJP at bay.
On Tuesday, Union minister Jual Oram accused Naveen and PCC chief Niranjan Patnaik of working in tandem, with Niranjan’s younger brother and newly elected BJD Rajya Sabha member Soumya Ranjan acting as the ‘bridge’ between the two. Niranjan hit back immediately and pointed to Naveen’s no-show at Bengaluru to insinuate about a secret B JP-BJD understanding.
With his popularity showing no signs of waning even after 18 uninterrupted years in power, Naveen knows he is on a strong wicket to win the simultaneous Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the state on his own. Openly siding with one or the other anti-BJP formation thus doesn’t make political sense for him at this juncture.
In any case, he has never really shown an appetite for ‘national’ politics and has happily confined himself to ‘serving the 4 crore Odias’. This way, he can play ‘catch me if you can’ with all his suitors while making sure that he doesn’t get caught by any of them.
As the BJP and the Congress continue with their slugfest over who is sleeping with the BJD, the BJD boss continues peddling his ‘equi-distant from BJP and Congress’ line that has served him so well in his fourth term. It is a clever ploy to keep his options open to break brad with either of the two national parties depending on the kind of mandate that election 2019 throws up.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)