Numbers will decide which way Naveen Babu will go after May 23

The low key Chief Minister is said to be a political butterfly. Inscrutable, unflappable, he would wait and watch and side with the alliance that emerges stronger

Numbers will decide which way Naveen Babu will go after May 23
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Sandeep Sahu

Second guessing how Naveen Patnaik would respond to a particular situation is hazardous business at the best of times. And when it is something as important as the formation of the next government at the Centre, it is even more so.

Just about the only authoritative indication we have had so far on the subject is what the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo told several national TV channels at the height of the election campaign. “The BJD will support whichever side offers Odisha the best deal,” he had said at the time. What it meant in effect was that his decision would be based on hard political realities rather than any ideological grandstanding.

Perhaps taking the cue, the BJP has already started efforts to convince him – and the people of Odisha at large – that it is more than willing to offer him the best ‘deal’ by extending all possible help by the Central government for the massive restoration work underway after the devastation wrought by Cyclone ‘Fani’. First, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his visit to the state for an aerial survey of the cyclone-ravaged areas on May 6, announced an interim assistance of Rs 1000 crore and promised all assistance in terms of men and material in the restoration work. He topped it all with handsome praise for Naveen Patnaik for the evacuation of a staggering 14 lakh people from the coast in the build up to the cyclone.

The bonhomie between the two leaders as they jointly made an aerial survey of the affected areas was in refreshing contrast to the no-holds-barred attack on each other during the campaign just weeks ago. Second, the Petroleum ministry, headed by Dharmendra Pradhan, readily granted the Chief Minister’s request for an additional 1000 kilolitres of kerosene for the thousands of people still doing without power. The Odisha Chief Minister returned the compliment to the Prime Minister by profusely thanking him for the help extended during and after ‘Fani’ in a letter sent on May 13.

It would, however, be a mistake to read this new-found bonhomie as an indication of the shape of things to come. Naveen is the kind of leader who never rushes through the decision making process. He would rather ‘wait and watch’ till the last possible minute and take a call only when he has to. So, it would be safe to say that he would wait till May 23 to know which way the wind is blowing – and maybe for sometime even after that – before deciding which side to go with.


Despite his inscrutable ways, there is one distinct – and constant – trait that has marked Naveen Patnaik’s conduct over the last 15 years. He has always preferred to be on the right side of the party in power at the Centre – its top leaders, to be more precise. That his party is at loggerheads with the same party at the state level has never really come in the way of his excellent terms with the leadership of the ruling party at the Centre. During the 10 years of UPA rule, he enjoyed the best of relations with top leaders of the Congress party even as it was principal opposition party in Odisha. During these 10 years, state Congress leaders were constantly left red-faced as minister after minister came to Odisha, had lunch/dinner with Naveen and went back singing paeans to him.

The deft political butterfly that he is, the BJD boss made a seamless transition when the BJP came to power and Modi became the Prime Minister in 2014. In the last five years, he has bailed out or backed the Modi government every time it has needed support in Parliament even while chanting the hackneyed ‘equi-distance’ jumla. After the decade-long UPA rule, it was now the BJP state leaders’ turn to undergo the embarrassment of watching their top leaders and ministers treating Naveen with kid gloves even as they went hammer and tongs against him on a daily basis.

Some people in Odisha argue that supporting a BJP-led government at the Centre would be untenable for Naveen now that the BJP has effectively replaced the Congress as the main opposition party in the state. But they don’t take it account the fact that he is a past master in this ‘Friends in Delhi, Foes in Bhubaneswar’ game. As they say, he has been there, done that.

Another distinctive feature of Naveen’s relationship with the party in power at the Centre - after the alliance years with the BJP, that is – is that he has preferred to stay away from any formal grouping and has never allowed anyone to take his support for granted. And there are reasons to believe that things are not going to be any different after May 23.

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