What went wrong with Naveen Patnaik‘s BJD?

Takeaways from the Odisha assembly elections and Lok Sabha poll trends so far

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik (photo: PTI)
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik (photo: PTI)

Ashutosh Mishra

Unexpected though it may be, chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik’s uninterrupted rule of 24 years in Odisha is set to come to an end, with rival BJP sweeping both the Lok Sabha and the assembly polls in the state.

The saffron party had won 45 seats in the 147-strong assembly and was leading in 33 others at the time of reporting, thus heading for a clear majority.

In contrast, the BJD had won from 35 and was leading in 15 constituencies, with the chief minister himself trailing in Kantabanji, the second seat he is contesting from in addition to his traditional seat of Hinjili, in Ganjam.

Putting up a much-improved show compared to its 2019 performance, the Congress had won eight seats at this point, and had established a lead in seven other constituencies as counting approached the final stages.

The BJD was almost routed in the Lok Sabha with the party ahead on the sole seat of Jajpur which has been its stronghold since 1999. While Congress seems likely to retain the Koraput seat, BJP candidates had established firm leads on all other 19 Lok Sabha seats in the state. In fact, union minister Dharmendra Pradhan had won the Sambalpur seat with only an official announcement awaited.

The saffron sweep in the Lok Sabha constituencies was not unexpected, considering that the party had concentrated its entire energy on increasing its Lok Sabha tally in a bid to compensate for the losses it anticipated in some of the heartland states.

It was even supposed to ratchet up its 2019 assembly tally of 23 — but an outright victory, enabling it to form a government in the state alone? That was not expected.

The credit for the BJP’s spectacular performance in the state should go exclusively to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive campaigning in the state.

He took a huge gamble by going all out against his one-time friend, chief minister Naveen Patnaik, and also targeted the latter’s Man Friday, bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian.

The high voltage campaign often turned acrimonious, with the prime minister not shying away from making personal attacks against Patnaik, who was forced to respond.

Pandian, too, trained his guns on the prime minister and his party colleague, if only to defend his boss.

It seems ironic that the election campaign began with an attempt at reviving the old alliance between the BJP and the BJD, which collapsed in 2009 after serving both sides well for nearly 11 years. However, efforts in this direction failed, despite prolonged parley between the top leaders of the two parties and their in-house discussions.

Leaders on both sides finally gave up, as cadres—unwilling to accept a patch-up bid—showed signs of rebellion. 

However, the failed bid to revive the alliance did more damage to the BJD, it seems, than to the BJP. The former was the ruling party, and its interest in a patch-up after a 15-year-old rivalry with the saffron party in the state was perceived as a sign of weakness.

The BJP exploited this and also played up the issue of Patnaik’s poor knowledge of the Odia language and his alleged over-dependence on Pandian — who, it was alleged, was controlling the state administration from behind the scenes. He was dubbed the 'super-chief minister' of the state.

The prime minister also had no compunctions about keeping these issues at the centre of his campaign in the state.

To this, he added the alleged anxiety over the 77-year-old chief minister’s failing health, and promised to constitute a committee to look into the issue if BJP came to power in the state! Pandian was accused of practically having taken Patnaik hostage and hiding this subterfuge by deliberately suppressing information about his health in the public domain.

As the stage is set for a change of regime in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik will bow out a sad person, unable to realise his dream of winning a sixth straight term in office and thus becoming the longest-serving chief minister of the country.

But this election has many lessons for him — one of its most important takeaways being that one should never commit the mistake of underestimating one’s rival. Patnaik’s overconfidence seems to have done him in.

Equally importantly, his overdependence on Pandian not only diminished him in the eyes of the people but also generated a lot of resentment among BJD leaders who, however, kept quiet as they did not want to offend the chief minister. Such things are seen as a sign of weakness in a leader.

The other takeaway from this election is that freebies alone can’t help a party win such battles.

During his long rule in the state, Patnaik launched a string of welfare measures, under which people were provided free rice, pensions and, for expecting mothers, money.

The BJD also made the mistake of not according the political legacy of Naveen’s father, Biju Patnaik, the kind of prominence it deserved in this election.

During the past one year or so, the party had actually started focusing more on turning Naveen Patnaik into a brand, by coming up with schemes like Nabin Odisha. This was in sharp contrast to its past practice of naming almost all the government schemes after Biju Patnaik, after whom the BJD has been named. 

Last but not the least, Naveen Patnaik failed to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s aggressive campaign, which almost exclusively targeted him and his lieutenant-in-chief V.K. Pandian.

Patnaik stuck to his image of being a 'gentleman politician', even as he sustained repeated blows from Modi — who follows an entirely different brand of politics. This, together with the rumours of his frail health, cemented the picture of his 'weakness'.

Along with the rumours of his physical frailty and Pandian's being the true power behind the post, citizens of Odisha saw no reason to keep the faith.

Did they also believe that Jagannath himself was a fan of the Modi avatar? That, it may be too soon to tell.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines