Odisha: BJP and BJD—will they, won't they tie the knot?

Neither the Biju Janata Dal nor the BJP—parties which fought each other bitterly for the last 15 years—has ever faced such a predicament

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik (photo: National Herald archives)
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik (photo: National Herald archives)

Ashutosh Mishra

Now it is the Election Commission of India that has come to the rescue of the BJP and BJD leaders who are struggling to seal a respectable seat-sharing arrangement in the state.

Neither the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) nor the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — which have fought each other bitterly for the last 15 years — has ever faced such a predicament. However, unlike last time, elections in Odisha will be held between the fourth and the seventh phases in 2024, giving both parties time to iron out the creases.

As suspense over an electoral alliance continues even after the poll schedule has been announced, the cadres of both parties appear to be in a rebellious mood. Having been adversaries in state politics for more than a decade, they find even the suggestion of a patch-up, let alone a full-fledged alliance, embarrassing.

Even as working out a mutually acceptable seat-sharing formula is turning out to be a challenge, there is grudging admission by leaders of both parties in private conversations that they are finding it hard to shed the baggage of their bitter past.

The BJD–BJP alliance came into existence in 1998 with the ostensible objective of liberating Odisha from years of ‘misrule’ by successive governments. The alliance swept to power in 2000 and ran the state for nearly nine years, although the coalition government was never completely free from trouble.

The two parties had had their differences over several issues, including the entry of foreign companies such as Korean steel giant POSCO into the state. However, with industrialisation high on Naveen Patnaik’s agenda, he bulldozed all opposition to his endeavours in this regard.

However, Patnaik's own unease over the BJP’s communal agenda was growing.

Things came to a head in the wake of the 2008 Kandhamal riots, which followed the murder of VHP leader Swami Laxmananand Saraswati.

The bloodshed led to an international hue and cry and Naveen-babu— whose father Biju Patnaik had always upheld secular values—decided that enough was enough.

The alliance collapsed ahead of the 2009 elections—apparently over the issue of seat sharing, but it was common knowledge that the chief minister had made up his mind to get rid of his alliance partner in any case. The parting was bitter for the BJP, which could win just six seats in the 147-strong state assembly.

State BJP leaders alleged Naveen Patnaik had deliberately ignored and humiliated them, even as he was building bridges with their central leaders. Their bitterness towards the chief minister continued even after he developed cordial relations with Narendra Modi and the BJD started supporting the NDA within Parliament on controversial issues such as the scrapping of Article 370 and the Citizenship Amendment Bill.

Now, with talks of an alliance reportedly again stuck on the issue of seat sharing, some senior state BJP leaders have dismissed all speculation as media-generated rubbish. The political grapevine, however, holds that the Prime Minister’s principal secretary, Pramod Kumar Mishra, is playing a key role in finalising the alliance.

Mishra, who generally maintains a low profile, was quite visible during his stay in Bhubaneswar earlier this month.

He received an honorary doctorate from President Droupadi Murmu at the convocation of Utkal University in Bhubaneswar, graced an event at the Kalinga Institute Industrial Technology (KIIT) deemed university and then also paid a visit to Krushi Bhavan, which houses the agriculture department.

The grapevine also has it that the PMO boss was there to gauge the political mood in the state.

In the BJD camp, the focus is likewise on chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s Man Friday, bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian.

The Tamil Nadu-born 2000-batch IAS officer was private secretary to Naveen Patnaik for nearly a decade before he took voluntary retirement in October 2023. Appointed chairman of 5T (transformational initiatives) and Nabin Odisha with a cabinet rank, he has been practically running both the government and the party on behalf of the chief minister.

Often referred to as 'Super Chief Minister' Pandian, the eminence grise of the Naveen regime is believed to be the man who took the initiative to bring the BJD and the BJP together 15 years after their alliance collapsed in the state.

While Pandian is working overtime to give the alliance between the two parties concrete shape, another former bureaucrat was responsible for ending the eleven-year-old partnership between the two parties in the state over 15 years ago, recall old-timers — Pyari Mohan Mohapatra.

The return of Srikant Jena

The Congress in Odisha has received a timely boost, meanwhile, with the return of former Union minister Srikant Jena to the party.

Jena, the self-proclaimed messiah of the OBCs, who constitute around 46 per cent of the state’s population, is known as a master strategist who wields influence in coastal constituencies—where the Congress must do well if it is to have any realistic chance of making a comeback in the state, where it has been out of power since 2000.

After rejoining the Congress, Jena claimed that OBCs, tribes and Dalit groups in Odisha have not received their due in the political hierarchy in the state. Although they form an overwhelming majority of the population, their number remains minuscule in positions of authority, he said, hinting that a coalition of these groups could revive the fortunes of the grand old party.

Jena, who started his political career with the Janata Party, was once extremely close to Odisha’s legendary chief minister Biju Patnaik. But he did not get along with Naveen Patnaik as the son refused to join the Biju Janata Dal, formed after senior Patnaik Sr’s death.

Elected to the Lok Sabha four times, thrice on a Janata Dal ticket, Jena switched over to the Congress and won the Balasore Lok Sabha seat in 2009 — but was defeated in the next election.

Never afraid of speaking his mind (he had his differences with Biju Patnaik as well), the OBC stalwart was expelled from the Congress in 2019 following a tiff with the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) at the time, Niranjan Patnaik.

His return to the party ahead of the general elections is being credited to the persuasive skills of AICC’s Odisha in-charge Ajoy Kumar, who has the reputation of being a livewire, working hard to revive the Congress in the state.

The enduring appeal of Naveen-babu

The Odisha chief minister is the antithesis of the typical Indian neta.

His crumpled kurtas and ankle-length pyjamas invariably draw amused looks. His deficient knowledge of Odia, the official language of the state he rules, continues to provide ammunition to his opponents. Loath to deliver speeches, he is almost taciturn even at his election rallies and rather chooses to connect with his audience with a wave of his hand and his trademark smile.

Moon khushi, apana mane khushi ta? (I am happy; are you also happy?)” is the stock line he uses at his rallies. But there is a magic in those words that often sends the crowd into a frenzy.

Having won five consecutive terms in office, he is the longest-serving chief minister of the state, one of the longest-serving in the country thereby.

His unconventional image has been a hit with the people. To the majority of voters, he continues to be the same 'innocent' man who is unlike other slimy politicians, who believes in walking the talk and is loath to sell dreams that cannot be realised.

Over the years, Patnaik he has emerged as a father figure for the people too, with a clutch of welfare programmes — the Mamata scheme for expecting mothers and a Harishchandra Sahayata Yojana for financial assistance to the destitute to conduct the last rites of a family member are some that have won him goodwill.

Women's empowerment has become an article of faith for the chief minister too, who was among the first in the country to provide 50 per cent reservation to women in Panchayati Raj institutions and continues to campaign for 33 per cent reservation for women in legislatures across the country. Five of the 21 ministers in the state are women.

Turncoats in trouble

Finally, speculation about a possible alliance between the BJD and the BJP has put a clutch of turncoats — who joined the saffron party recently in the hope of contesting the coming elections — in a fix. Among these party hoppers are three prominent BJD leaders — Debasish Nayak, Pradeep Panigrahi and Prashant Jagdev.

While Nayak and Panigrahi are former ministers, Jagdev is an emerging leader. All three fell from grace and lost hope of BJD tickets, which drove them into the BJP’s lap. But in the event of a BJP–BJD alliance, they will again be unsure of a ticket for those constituencies they have so long nurtured and represented.

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