‘Oh! I’ve got a problem,’ Naveen Patnaik burst out spontaneously, before falling quiet quickly. The year was 2000. It was the evening that assembly election results were being announced and Naveen was headed for a thumping victory. He was on the way to Soochana Bhavan, the state information centre, and other television channel studios for live interviews. I was with him in his car. He was sitting in the front, beside the driver; I was in the back. Those were the pre-EVM days and counting was still under way and results of several seats were awaited. In some, trends were known, but official announcements of who won and who lost were still to be made. As results were confirmed and friends called on my mobile, I relayed them to Naveen... He simply soaked in whatever information I offered him. But then came the result from Pallahara, an assembly constituency in the central Anugul district, and Naveen’s ears pricked up. Naveen’s BJD had contested the elections in an alliance with the BJP and the winning candidate from Pallahara was the BJP’s Dharmendra Pradhan.
The moment I broke the news that Pradhan had won, Naveen said, ‘Oh! I’ve got a problem.’ Son of the then union minister of state for surface transport, Debendra Pradhan, Dharmendra was a little-known figure in 2000. An activist of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and a former student union leader of Utkal University, Dharmendra was contesting elections for the first time. Nobody thought much of him and many within the state BJP felt he would, at best, have a temporary presence. Odisha, like every other state, had been replete with instances of leaders who faded into oblivion after winning one or two elections and many felt Dharmendra would be no different.
But Naveen thought differently and blurted out his concern over Pradhan’s victory in a rare moment of candour. Almost two decades later, and ahead of the twin Lok Sabha and assembly elections in 2019, the chief minister’s judgement is proving correct. The BJP is beginning to challenge Naveen’s uninterrupted reign and it is Dharmendra, now in his late forties, who is leading the charge. Having won as an MLA in 2000, Dharmendra became an MP in 2004 after successfully contesting from the Deogarh parliamentary constituency.
He suffered a setback in 2009 when he chose to contest for the assembly and lost, but by then the hardworking and ambitious Dharmendra had made enough contacts in the nation’s capital to build a successful political career.
First, he became the BJP national secretary and then the general secretary. By 2012, he was important enough for the party to arrange for him to be elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. When the NDA, led by the BJP, swept the 2014 polls and Narendra Modi became prime minister, Dharmendra became the union minister of state for petroleum and natural gas with independent charge. He has continued to be in the good books of the prime minister, who publicly commended him for delivering on ambitious Central government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana which provides subsidized LPG connections to BPL households. In 2017, when Modi expanded his cabinet, Dharmendra was promoted and made a full-fledged cabinet minister.
Besides petroleum and natural gas, he now also has the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship under his command, apparently two of the prime minister’s core focus areas. Fired partly by his own political ambitions and partly by the powerful position he currently holds, Dharmendra finds himself pitted against Naveen, though the BJP plans to rely heavily on Prime Minister Modi’s appeal to counter the Odisha chief minister’s image during the next assembly elections scheduled for 2019. Odisha also accounts for another senior Central minister – tribal affairs minister Jual Oram – but the better networked
Dharmendra is perceived by many as the party’s more credible chief ministerial candidate. He is the most visible, if not the tallest, figure among BJP leaders in Odisha and hardly a week passes without Dharmendra attending a huge rally or leading a cavalcade of cars and party workers into the remotest corners to storm what are known to be BJD citadels. Though now re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, and constantly travelling around the country and the globe as an influential union minister, Dharmendra keeps Odisha central to his political priorities. He visits his home state so frequently that one of his partymen told a journalist colleague recently, ‘Muku Bhai [Muku is Dharmendra’s pet name] leaves Odisha only to come back the next day or the day after. He is never away from the state for long.’
The moment I broke the news that Dharmendra Pradhan had won, Naveen said, ‘Oh! I’ve got a problem.’ Almost two decades later, and ahead of the twin Lok Sabha and assembly elections in 2019, the chief minister’s judgement is proving correct. The BJP is beginning to challenge Naveen’s uninterrupted reign and it is Dharmendra, now in his late forties, who is leading the charge
But what exactly set the alarm bells ringing for Naveen about Dharmendra, who back in 2000 looked no different from many other politicians? A top IAS officer who served Naveen for a long time insisted that Naveen possesses ‘X-ray eyes’. He is suspicious by nature. The moment he sees a person, he sizes him up, without letting the person know what he is thinking of him. ‘Naveen’s gut feelings are strong and he relies heavily on them,’ another senior official explained.
Those who have worked with him closely say that Naveen hides his emotions well. He may have a very poor opinion of someone, but the person will never get to know that. On the contrary, it is more likely that the chief minister’s warm hospitality would have floored him and the person may go away thinking he has made a good impression on Naveen. This happened with Dharmendra in 2000.
A few days after his ‘Oh! I’ve got a problem’ remark, Naveen met Dharmendra in the assembly when the new House convened to welcome the newly elected legislators. The chief minister congratulated the first-time MLA profusely and said how happy he was seeing Dharmendra win. Naveen, after all, can never be faulted for failing to show courtesy.
But there is no room for such niceties in electoral politics and the battle for 2019 is hotting up by the day with no holds barred. Winning Odisha has become a critical prestige battle for the BJP. Having swept much of the Hindi heartland in 2014 – it won as many as 73 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats with its allies in Uttar Pradesh, 27 out of 29 seats in Madhya Pradesh and all the 25 seats in Rajasthan – there is not much room to improve its tally in those states. It is more likely that the BJP’s numbers will slip in the states where it had swept the polls in 2014 and the party will look to compensate the expected losses by picking up seats from newer territories. Odisha, with 21 Lok Sabha seats, is a new frontier for the BJP where it expects to establish its footprint, alongside other states in the country’s east and north-east. It has wrested power in Assam, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh and Tripura, shares power in Bihar and is trying hard to make inroads into West Bengal. Political pundits say that Odisha holds better promise for the party than Bengal, where the BJP is still struggling to make its mark. In Odisha, it has already stunned everyone, including its rivals, with its improved showing in the 2017 panchayat polls.
The panchayat poll results bewildered many and left the BJP buoyant. Compared to its dismal showing in the 2014 general elections, or for that matter in the previous panchayat polls of 2012, the BJP performed creditably in 2017. The ruling BJD emerged as the single largest party, winning 473 of the state’s 853 zilla parishad seats, but what got everyone talking was the BJP’s much improved tally. The BJP won 297 zilla parishad seats, compared to the paltry 36 it won in 2012. After having spent most of its existence in Odisha on the sidelines or latching on to a bigger partner as a sidekick, the saffron outfit burst into prominence after the panchayat polls. The surprise results saw it becoming the principal opposition party, relegating the Congress to third spot in the state. As against 128 zilla parishad seats that the Congress had won in 2012, this time it won just 60.
The significance of the panchayat polls was huge. No less than 142 of the state’s 147 assembly segments, barring only Bhubaneswar Central, Barabati, Rourkela, Sambalpur and Berhampur, have rural constituents which voted in the panchayat polls, providing a measure of what was considered the popular mood across the state. The number of voters was also huge and nearly as large as that in the last general elections. Some 204 lakh voters voted in the panchayat polls compared to the turnout of 215 lakh for the 2014 Lok Sabha and assembly polls. Given the scale and spread of the panchayat vote, the results triggered speculation about Odisha’s political future. The BJD did come on top with 40.81 per cent of the vote, but with the BJP securing 33.03 per cent, almost double of the 17.99 per cent it had secured during the 2014 polls, many saw in the panchayat poll outcome the first signs of an impending change. In terms of actual numbers, the differences between the BJD and the BJP are interesting. Out of the total 204 lakh voters who turned up to cast their ballots, the BJD polled 83.5 lakh votes while the BJP got 67 lakh votes, a difference of about 15 lakh votes. Th e panchayat poll results, once extrapolated to assembly and parliamentary seats, were more encouraging for the BJP. The results showed that if the people had voted for the assembly in the same manner, the BJP would have won 43 seats as against the 10 it currently holds. If the vote was for the Lok Sabha, the BJP would have won 6 of the 21 seats, compared to the lone seat it won in 2014.
Though still a distant second, the panchayat poll results reflected a definite upswing in the BJP’s fortunes in Odisha. It led to several questions being asked: Is a Modi wave at work in Odisha? Why didn’t such a wave work in 2014? Why is it beginning to work now? More importantly, is the Naveen magic waning? Is Brand Naveen finally losing its sheen?