THE BATTLE OF KALINGA
The BJP has done everything in its powers to end the Naveen Patnaik era in Odisha this year, but will that be enough?
Election time in Odisha has seldom been so intriguing. As the state went to the polls over the course of last month, the air was filled not only with rampant speculation, conspiracy theories and wildly contradicting narratives, but also with power play, rabble-rousing speeches and perturbing violence.
The rhetorical warfare between the top-rung leadership reached a crescendo during the April 23-24 period. It began when Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in a sharp departure from the norm, launched a direct attack on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik while campaigning in Odisha.
"I would like to tell Naveen babu that your departure is inevitable. A handful of officials cannot save you," Modi said while addressing a poll rally in Barua village of the Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency on the last day of his campaign in the state.
The Prime Minister said he had been “respectful of the political decorum” and desisted from attacking the Biju Janata Dal boss while campaigning for the first two phases of the polls in Odisha because Naveen had served the state “for long and deserved a respectable farewell”.
However, Modi suggested, he changed his mind what with “the way Naveen babu resorted to violence, like in Bengal, over the past 10 to 12 days”.
Noting that poll-related violence had peaked in Odisha, Modi said the state authorities and election officials should be blamed for not doing anything about it.
"It's certain that in Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal will go and the BJP will come to power after the polls," the Prime Minister said, asserting that the people of Odisha will bid Naveen an angry goodbye and the BJD will not be able to stop “double engine” growth in the state despite all its might.
Later that day, while addressing an election rally in Balasore Lok Sabha constituency, Modi again levelled serious accusations against the BJD chief, his party and his administrative officers. Stating that the BJD was encouraging corruption, the Prime Minister said the ruling party’s leaders continued to gather wealth through mining and chit fund scams.
Claiming that Naveen and a few of the state’s bureaucrats were shackling the aspirations of the people of Odisha, he even accused the BJD administration of masterminding the recent attacks on BJP workers in Odisha during the election period for the fear of the saffron party’s rise in the state.
Before leaving, Modi appealed to the people of Odisha, saying: “Give the BJP just five years to work in Odisha, I assure you five times more development than whatever happened in the past 19 years.”
The very next day, Naveen came up with an uncharacteristic response – but widely hailed among his supporters in Odisha as a befitting one – to Modi’s assertions and accusations.
While addressing a rally in Basta Assembly constituency, the BJD president said: “Yesterday, the Prime Minister stated that he would visit Odisha again after the exit of BJD government. However, with the blessings of the people here, BJD has already secured majority in the Assembly.”
"I humbly invite Modiji to attend the oath-taking ceremony of the BJD government as a guest," Naveen added.
The verbal battle between Modi and Naveen was unprecedented and made for big headlines in the media and a great talking point on social media, but there was no denying public concern over the violence seen during the polling period – irrespective of which party was the initiator or perpetrator.
Only two days earlier, in two separate incidents in the state’s capital, there were bomb attacks on both BJD and BJP MLA candidates Anant Narayan Jena and Jagannath Pradhan, respectively, who were contesting from the Bhubaneswar Central seat.
Jena, formerly the Mayor of Bhubaneswar, was attacked by a group of men in the city’s Jharpada area. Although he had timely gotten off the car at which bombs had been hurled, he still sustained injuries to the head and hands from the incident and had to be admitted in the ICU at the Capital Hospital.
Meanwhile, not far from Delta Square, Pradhan’s car was attacked with crude bombs near his party office, marking the third time that he has faced such kind of violence. The most recent one prompted BJP leader and Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan to meet and call on Election Commission officials in Bhubaneswar for an investigation.
However, the BJD alleged that the attack on the BJP leader was staged by members of the saffron party. Many BJD leaders jointly wrote a letter to the Chief Electoral Officer, calling for a lie detector test and a narco-analysis of Dharmendra Pradhan and others so that the truth could be revealed.
Elsewhere, on the same night in Keonjhar district, local police reported that Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) president Niranjan Patnaik was injured in an attack in Ghasipura. The incident also left five others injured and three thereof hospitalised.
The most controversially violent event of that fateful night transpired at another place in the state.
When a flying squad team of Election Commission (EC) officials descended on Pipili, after getting a tip-off about distribution of money and liquor (a Model Code of Conduct violation) at the farmhouse of local BJD MLA and sitting lawmaker Pradeep Maharathy, little did they know what was coming their way.
Just as the team, led by executive magistrate Rabi Narayan Patra, began carrying out the raid, it faced the heat of former minister Maharathi’s supporters, so much so that Patra and some of his team members found themselves admitted to the Capital Hospital in Bhubaneswar.
“As soon as the team reached there, Maharathy started hurling abuses and later attacked me and my team,” Patra alleged, adding that the 15-member EC team so feared their lives that they fled from the spot in one of the two vehicles they had arrived with.
Mr Patra himself claimed incurring waist injuries and was “unable to walk" after the incident.
Soon after the incident, an FIR was lodged and Maharathy – who had last served as a BJD minister in 2014 before resigning for making what was widely deemed to be insensitive remarks about a Dalit rape victim from his constituency – was eventually arrested.
In his defence for the latest incident, though, Maharathy said two things: First, that he was not personally involved in the attack on the EC team; and second, that an EC team member entered his farmhouse by breaking its lock at midnight, which resulted in the manner of violence that happened subsequently.
Exactly a week before the state saw this series of violent attacks in one single night, a BJP leader was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Khordha town. After sustaining fatal bullet injuries, Khordha Mandal President Manguli Jena was declared dead on arrival by doctors of the local district hospital.
In the wake of this tragic incident, the BJP called for a six-hour shutdown in Khordha bandh as party workers held demonstrations outside a police station demanding immediate arrest of the killers. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan promptly placed the blame on the BJD and said the ruling regime would get a befitting reply from the voters.
At around the same time period, a couple of other controversial incidents made big news as well.
On April 17 the Election Commission suspended Mohammed Mohsin – an IAS officer of Karnataka cadre working as a General Observer under the supervision of the poll panel in Odisha – with immediate effect for allegedly checking Prime Minister Modi's helicopter in Sambalpur the previous day and thus acting contrary to the instructions of the Commission concerning SPG protectees.
The next day, a video of a curiously similar incident went viral on social media – as it showed Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan flying off the handle. He was seen animatedly telling off the flying squad and the police after being approached for inspection of his chopper in Sambalpur where he had come to attend Prime Minister Modi's rally. While the video showed Pradhan denying the inspecting team permission to carry out their job without furnishing an official document for the same, sources from his party later claimed that the flying squad was finally allowed to conduct the inspection after the incident.
Pradhan’s video was in stark contrast to other videos posted on social media the same day showing similar inspections of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's chopper in Rourkela ahead of his road show there. Naveen was seen extending full cooperation to the EC flying squad as he waited patiently inside the chopper until the conclusion of their inspection.
Meanwhile, the BJD also called on the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO), demanding action against the Union Minister for his alleged misbehaviour with government officers on election duty. "It was seen that BJP leader Dharmendra Pradhan misbehaved and prevented government officers from checking his helicopter and a sealed suitcase, which was being done as part of normal election duty checking," the BJD pointed out.
Senior Congress leader and Rajya Sabha MP Ahmed Patel also questioned the EC over the suspension of Mohsin. “There have been instances where during polls the EC was allowed to check convoys of both current and former Congress Presidents. The Special Protection Group (SPG) protectees can't be frisked personally.
"Why suspend an officer for checking PM's chopper? What message is being sent? Law is special for some," Patel tweeted.
While the BJP has been making concerted efforts to overthrow the long regime of the BJD in Odisha, according to many political analysts in the state, the saffron party’s state chapter is seeing a power shift within as well.
They note that former IAS officer and BJP's Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha candidate, Aparajita Sarangi, a virtual newcomer to the party, is replacing Pradhan as the long-time chief ministerial face of BJP in the state. This notion gained traction particularly after large hoardings featuring Prime Minister Modi and Sarangi were seen in the state capital last month.
Although Sarangi joined the saffron party barely six months ago, in November last year, after taking voluntary retirement from her job, her career as a bureaucrat in Odisha was nothing short of impressive.
Born in Bihar, this 1994-batch Odisha cadre IAS officer has enjoyed successful stints as the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) commissioner, Khurdha district collector, School and Mass Education and Panchayati Raj secretary in the Odisha government, as well as joint secretary (MGNREGA) in the Union Ministry of Rural Development.
Married to fellow IAS batch- and cadre-mate Santosh Sarangi (currently on Central deputation) and speaking fluent Odia, Aparajita is very much seen as a daughter of Odisha.
Therefore, some political observers reckon, the BJP high command sees Aparajita as integral to its grand plan of turning around its fortunes in Odisha.
However, this perception was brushed aside by a senior BJP leader, but only on the condition of anonymity. Explaining that many BJP candidates from across the state had put up their posters exclusively alongside Prime Minister Modi, and there was nothing to read into the ones seen in Bhubaneswar.
"Had there been a shift of power, Dharmendra Pradhan would not have campaigned across the state for the party; it would have been Aparajita Sarangi," he concluded.
Most political pundits agree that the BJP has been willing to try everything there is in the political playbook to wrest Odisha away from Naveen Patnaik-led BJD, but they are evidently divided on the saffron party’s electoral prospects this time in the eastern coastal state.
After the relatively low overall voter turnout in the third phase of polling compared to the 2014 figures, some political observers averred that those figures suggested fatigue within the ruling BJD and might translate into gains for the BJP this time.
Political analyst Rabi Das said it will be “a two-way fight in Odisha between the BJP and the BJD this time”. Odisha had no alternative to Naveen until now, Das noted, but the contest this time will be between Modi and Patnaik.
“Modi speaks from a national viewpoint while Patnaik focuses on state issues. Thanks to simultaneous elections being held for the Lok Sabha and the state Assembly, the vote can go either way,” he concluded.
Many other political experts also agree that the BJP is certain to enjoy a rise in its vote share in Odisha, what with its unprecedented campaign blitzkrieg and a severely diminished position of a disarrayed Congress in the state.
However, a majority of political watchers believe any gains by the BJP this time are highly unlikely to be at the expense of the BJD, because of what Naveen has done for the state as its chief minister over the course of 19 years. They reckon the BJD supremo knows the pulse of the Odisha’s public like the back of his hand.
By creating more than 700,000 self-help groups aimed at providing them with much needed financial help and making them self-reliant, Naveen has long won over Odisha’s women who constitute nearly half of the state’s population. Through long-running welfare schemes such as the Rs 1 per kg rice and Rs 5 meal for the poor, the Chief Minister already has the blessings of almost a third of the state’s population. Besides, during his reign, the percentage of people below poverty line has come down from around 57 percent in 2005 to 32 percent in the 2011-12 period. These figures are only a few achievements among numerous others that illustrate how Naveen has ticked all the right boxes during the course of his enduring reign as chief minister of Odisha.
Therefore, the overarching conclusion of political analysts nationally so far has been that no matter how wild the speculations about his health get, or how many conspiracy theories are churned about Odisha being run by a select few bureaucrats “remote-controlling” a puppet chief minister, or how aggressively the BJP leadership tries to take the BJD chief down, Naveen’s legacy of more work and less talk is unlikely to be lost on his home state’s people anytime soon.