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The odds are stacked against those betting against Naveen
With elections round the corner the obvious question being asked is will chief minister Naveen Patnaik be able to win a fifth consecutive term in office? He is nearing the end of his fourth term which is already a record for the state. His father, the late Biju Patnaik, was twice the chief minister of the state but the gap between his two terms, one as a Congressman and the other as a Janata Dal patriarch, was nearly 30 years. Those three decades were full of struggle for the veteran who became a legend in his lifetime.
In sharp contrast, his son’s political journey has been rather smooth. Making a reluctant entry into politics following Biju Babu’s death in 1997, he won the Lok Sabha bye-election from Aska, the seat held by his father, rather comfortably. The common perception was that he rode to victory on his father’s popularity and the sympathy his death had generated but there was no denying the tenacity of the socialite author who was in the process of metamorphosing into a hard-nosed politician.
Though his time as a union minister was an uneventful one, he still attracted attention as the son of Biju Patnaik. The term Biju legacy was coined around this time deliberately by Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leaders who found it convenient to project Naveen as the rightful heir to this legacy which, ironically enough, has become a matter of debate now.
A marriage of convenience, the alliance between BJD and BJP, which suited Naveen’s political ends, was hailed as a political coup when it happened. It was a coup indeed in that the two parties ruled the state in tandem for nearly nine years with Naveen as the chief minister. That the alliance lasted more than a decade despite the ideological mismatch between the two parties was a tribute to Naveen’s political genius.
The nonchalance with which Naveen dumped the BJP in 2009 was in stark contrast to the enthusiasm he had shown while embracing the saffron party as an ally soon after the formation of BJD. In his case, head always rules over the heart in such matters. This, irrespective of the unflattering epithets like “ruthless” and “selfish” he has earned over the years from critics, has been the key to his success.
The four-time chief minister of the state has been lucky in equal measure, some say. There is a view held by a few that he has been winning elections by default with Opposition failing to throw up a credible challenge. Congress, the state’s main opposition party, still appears to be in a state of disarray with two of its sitting MLAs – Naba Kishore Das and Jogesh Singh – joining the BJD. Former union minister Srikant Jena, one of its best brains, has also parted ways.
Though Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president, Niranjan Patnaik has been trying to put up a brave front, the party is unlikely to recover from these setbacks. The repeated Odisha visits of AICC president Rahul Gandhi can at best ensure that Congress makes the contest triangular at least in some Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies of the state.
The Congress, for all practical purposes, has conceded its main opposition party tag to the BJP which, rejuvenated by the results by last panchayat elections when it won a record 297 zila parishad seats, is trying to project itself as an alternative to Naveen Patnaik. However, while the saffron party does not lack in aggression and also seems capable of matching the BJD in terms of resources, it faces a queer problem – a shortage of leaders who the electorate can easily identify with.
Barring a handful of leaders such as union ministers Dharmendra Pradhan and Jual Oram, legislature party leader KV Singhdeo and state president Basant Panda, the party can hardly count on anyone else to campaign for it across the state. The harsh reality is that even in this age of 24X7 news channels, the identity of most of the BJP MLAs remains confined to their respective constituencies. In short they lack glamour and charisma.
The party is trying to make up for this obvious disadvantage by organising the visits of heavyweights like Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its national president Amit Shah, both of whom appear to be focusing hard on Odisha. Much would also depend on the tone and tenor of their campaigns with Modi’s rather ‘soft’ approach towards Naveen already being contrasted with Shah’s sabre-rattling.
As things stand today with Congress unlikely to recover in time BJP seems to be the only party capable of challenging Naveen though, one wonders, if it can actually pull off a win and stop him from becoming fifth-time lucky. The elections are still a good two months away and a lot can happen during this period, but most experts agree that betting against a Naveen victory will be anything but wise.