When he burst into the political scene after the death of his father in 1997, he was a complete stranger in Odisha. Forget people, even those in the erstwhile Janata Dal knew precious little about Naveen Patnaik. Those who installed him as the political heir to the legendary Biju Patnaik had thought they could rule by proxy while Naveen would just be a figurehead cashing in on the enormous reservoir of love and goodwill for his father. None of them could have imagined in their wildest dreams that Naveen would not only be around in 2019, he would have stamped his authority in a way no other leader, including his father, had done before in Odisha while they themselves would be in the wilderness.
As Odisha enters the business end of the simultaneous Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, Naveen is still going strong and looks good for an unprecedented fifth successive term in office. But, it is going to be far from a cakewalk for the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo. Unlike in 2014, the BJP and, to a lesser extent the Congress, will be no pushovers this time. This could well turn out to be the toughest battle of Naveen’s two-decade-long political career. The Modi ‘wave’ that swept large parts of north and west India last time had fizzled out on the shores of Odisha. But this time, it appears to have got a life of its own though it doesn’t look strong enough to dethrone Naveen and his party. Brand Naveen is proving to be stronger than Brand Modi and the BJP knows it.
Maybe that’s the reason it is keeping the door ajar for a possible post-poll understanding with its erstwhile ally in the state. On his part, Naveen has said no party or alliance would get a majority in the elections and that his party would play a ‘key role’ in the formation of the government. But there is a rider. He has stuck to his policy of ‘equidistance from both BJP and Congress’ that has served him so well in the last Lok Sabha.
The BJP has certainly come of age in Odisha after years of being on the fringes since being dumped by Naveen in the run up to the 2009 elections. The party that won just one LS seat despite the Modi wave in 2014, looks set to add a few more to its tally. But it hasn’t yet reached a stage where it could threaten to dislodge Naveen. In all likelihood, the ‘frenemies’ will continue with the policy of ‘Modi in Delhi, Naveen in Bhubaneswar’ arrangement without entering into a formal alliance in case the verdict favours the NDA. Though he has upped the ante of late, Modi’s kid glove treatment for Naveen and his party during multiple visits to the state since last December points precisely to such a possibility.
But Naveen is nothing if not a pragmatist. Given his equation with the Congress during the decade-long UPA rule from 2004 to 2014, it is equally possible that he would have a similar ‘friends in Delhi, foes in Bhubaneswar’ arrangement with the grand old party if the results go the other way. In his visits to the state in the recent past, AICC president Rahul Gandhi has been equally critical of both Modi/BJP and Naveen/BJD. But the ‘communal’ nature of the BJP’s politics could come in handy for working out an arrangement between him and Naveen, should the numbers be in his favour. Naveen’s deft handling of the two national parties over the last 15 years has put him in an enviable position where he is being wooed by both sides of the political spectrum. He has already become the longest serving Chief Minister of Odisha. If he manages to register another win, he would go down as one of the most successful politicians in the history of the country. And the only politician who has never lost an election!