Odisha: Narendra Modi and the martial art of losing allies

Modi is taking a calculated risk by targeting his former ally, the Biju Janata Dal led by CM Naveen Patnaik

BJD supporters at a Lok Sabha election campaign rally in Odisha, May 2024
BJD supporters at a Lok Sabha election campaign rally in Odisha, May 2024

Ashutosh Mishra

As the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ramps up its campaign in Odisha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s desperation is mounting. The niceties that once characterised his relationship with Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik — who is among the few regional satraps on whom the BJP-led NDA could rely to bail it out in Parliament — have been abandoned. The ferocity of the PM’s attacks on Patnaik has compelled the usually mild-mannered chief minister to respond to the barbs of his one-time friend. This kind of a recriminatory campaign has rarely been seen in the state.

The first salvo in this war of words was fired by Modi when he addressed his maiden election rally in Odisha at Berhampur on 6 May, taunting Patnaik for his poor knowledge of Odia and Odia culture. On 11 May, while addressing rallies in Kandhamal, Bolangir and Bargarh Lok Sabha constituencies, Modi even questioned his knowledge about the state he ruled.

“Naveen babu has been the chief minister of Odisha for so many years. I want to challenge Naveen babu. Why are people upset with you? Because (if) you make him stand anywhere and ask him to spell out the names of districts and their ‘capitals’, he won’t be able to do so. How can a chief minister, who cannot name the districts and their headquarters, be expected to understand your plight?” asked Modi at Kandhamal.

In Bolangir, Modi invited people to ask Patnaik to name 10 villages in the Kantabanji Assembly segment from where Patnaik has filed his nomination papers this time along with his traditional seat (Hinjili in Ganjam). The Kantabanji segment is part of Bolangir Lok Sabha constituency, and Patnaik has chosen to contest it in a strategic move to contain the BJP’s influence in western Odisha, where they had won all five Lok Sabha seats in 2019.

At Bargarh, the prime minister targeted Patnaik’s Man Friday, the Tamil Nadu-born former IAS officer V.K. Pandian, who is the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) chief strategist in these elections. Taking a dig at Pandian, who is believed to be remote-controlling the government even after taking voluntary retirement from service and joining politics, Modi said, "Do you know the entire government in Odisha has been outsourced? There is a super CM (Pandian) who is above the democratically-elected government and the chief minister. Do you want the state to go into the hands of those who have no understanding of Odisha?”

He then called upon people to vote for his party which, he said, was the only way of putting an end to BJD’s misrule in the state. He also brought up the issue of the missing keys to the ratna bhandar (treasury room) of the Jagannath temple in an attempt to make an emotional connect with people while attacking the state government’s alleged inefficiency.

Patnaik, who usually refuses to be provoked, responded in a video statement where he tore into Modi: “Honourable prime minister, how much do you remember about Odisha? Even though Odia is a classical language, you forgot about it. You have allotted Rs 1,000 crore to Sanskrit but zero to Odia.”

He took a dig at Modi for forgetting about Odissi though the state had sent him proposals for the recognition of this classical dance form. “Odisha’s natural wealth is coal. You (the Centre) take coal from Odisha. But you forgot to hike the royalty on coal even once in the last 10 years,” Patnaik reminded the prime minister.

Narendra Modi is taking a calculated risk by targeting his former ally. He seems ready to burn the bridges he had assiduously built with regional satraps like Patnaik over the years. With the BJP-led NDA government lacking the requisite numbers in the Rajya Sabha, there have been several occasions when Patnaik’s party bailed it out in the Upper House, be it for the abrogation of article 370, triple talaq or the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Patnaik, in fact, had exposed himself to criticism from minority community leaders by extending support to the CAA. His party’s backing of the Modi government ever since it came to power for the first time in 2014 made a mockery of the BJD’s stand of maintaining equidistance from both the BJP and the Congress. It also threatened to dent the secular credentials of the chief minister, who had ended his party’s alliance with the BJP in 2009 in the wake of communal riots in Kandhamal.

The regional party led by Patnaik not only extended support to NDA’s presidential candidates, handpicked by Modi, it also backed the candidature of Harivansh Narayan Singh for the post of Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson in 2020 in deference to the PM’s wishes.

Such was the bonhomie between Modi and Patnaik that BJP leader and railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw was twice sent to the Rajya Sabha from Odisha with the BJD’s support. What Patnaik got in return was financial assistance from the Centre in the wake of disastrous cyclones like Fani, which left the Odisha coast completely devastated in 2019.

On balance, it was the BJP that gained the most from this friendly understanding, with the BJD holding 12 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state, the BJP currently holding eight and the Congress one.

Modi’s vitriolic campaign is apparently spurred by the hope of a major revival of the BJP in Odisha. The BJP’s vote share in the state had jumped from 21.9 per cent in 2014 to 38.9 per cent in 2019. The BJD’s vote share had dipped marginally, from 44.8 per cent in 2014 to 43.3 per cent in 2019.

Post-poll data showed that the BJP’s vote share increased largely at the cost of the Congress, which fell from over 26 per cent in 2014 to 14 per cent in 2019. However, the BJP failed to recreate its Lok Sabha success in the Assembly polls. Even though it emerged as the main opposition party, winning 23 seats, it was still far behind the BJD which won a record fifth term with 112 of the 147 seats at stake. The BJP’s Assembly vote share, however, rose from just 18.2 per cent in 2014 to 32.8 per cent in 2019.

The BJP faced a major setback in the 2022 panchayat polls where it won 42 zila parishad seats compared to the 297 it had won in 2017. The BJD swept the polls, bagging a record 766 zila parishad seats of the total 852. Things haven’t changed much since then, and the BJP’s wildest hope is to bag 15 Lok Sabha seats. Similarly, in the 147-strong state Assembly, the party can, at best hope to double its present tally of 23.

This hardly seems worth the risks that Modi is taking by attacking a reliable ally. Taking the BJD and Patnaik’s support for granted in Parliament is poor politics, feel observers. The attacks may well make it difficult for Patnaik and Pandian to extend support to the NDA in future, even if they want to.

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