Customers at a popular bookshop in Bhubaneswar had a pleasant surprise recently when the chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, arrived there in the company of his elder sister, the well-known writer Gita Mehta, to buy some books. The elaborate security entourage that has become such an integral part of Patnaik’s persona was conspicuous by its absence. It was perhaps this that encouraged an excited young girl to approach the chief minister for a “selfie.” She was thrilled when Patnaik obliged with a smile—he then went on to pose with several others, who happened to be at the bookshop at the time.
Even as people wondered whether the presence of Patnaik’s sister had anything to do with his sudden and unexpected act of magnanimity, there came another occasion when the chief minister, on a visit to a research farm of a local agriculture university, happily posed for photographs with the students and chatted with them, overshooting his stay by nearly half an hour. A few days later, he invited a group of girls from a local government college into his office chamber to discuss the issue of their photos being uploaded onto Facebook without their consent. It was a style of interaction that would have been unthinkable for the chief minister till a few weeks ago.
Patnaik’s recent public outreach efforts show a clear pattern. There are unmistakable signs that the man who arrived on the political scene two decades ago and has ruled Odisha for 17 uninterrupted and unchallenged years has now decided to attempt to shed his aloof image. It is clear that Patnaik senses an imminent threat to his rule from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which, after scoring significant victories in several state elections, seeks to conquer Odisha in 2019.
The clearest measures of the threat to Patnaik’s party—the Biju Janata Dal, or BJD—were the results of the three-tier panchayat elections in February this year.
Though the party retained its pre-eminent position in the political sweepstakes, it ended up with 473 zilla parishad seats—the only ones fought on the party symbol—178 less than the 651 it won in 2012. More worryingly, the BJP, which had bagged a paltry 36 seats last time, gained massively to finish with an impressive 297 seats, leaving the Congress a distant third with just 60.
The vote shares of the three parties, too, tell a story. According to figures compiled by the daily Sambad, the BJD, which had won 43.4 percent of the votes in the 2014 assembly election, lost less than 3 percent of its vote share to end up with 40.8 percent. But the BJP leapfrogged from just 18 percent to 33.03 percent in this election, a massive jump of over 15 percentage points. For its part, the Congress nosedived from a respectable 25.7 percent in 2014 to just 18 percent this time. Though the results still left the BJP considerably behind the BJD, they pointed to gradual erosion in support for the BJD and an upswing in the BJP’s fortunes.
The major gains made by the BJP in the panchayat polls in Odisha were significant enough for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to mention them on at least three different occasions during the campaign for the assembly elections in faraway Uttar Pradesh. Soon after its stupendous victory in that state election, the party announced its decision to hold the two-day meeting of its national executive in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha. The meeting, apparently designed as a kind of morale booster for the party’s state unit as it prepared for the 2019 election, was the clearest indication yet of the importance of Odisha in the BJP’s plans.
Sensing that the time was right for some political machinations, the BJP embarked on a carefully orchestrated exercise to spread doubt and confusion in the BJD ranks. Senior leaders of the party, including the union tribal-affairs minister and state MP Jual Oram, as well as Arun Singh, who is in charge of the state unit, openly bragged that several BJD MPs and MLAs were “in touch” with the BJP. This led to ominous whispers of a possible split in the ruling party.
That such talk was not idle gossip fuelled by the BJP’s formidable propaganda machinery became clear when, in a series of tweets on 27 March, Tathagata Satpathy, the BJD MP from Dhenkanal and the chief whip of the party in the Lok Sabha, accused the BJP of working overtime to engineer a split in his party—and a fellow party MP of helping the BJP in its designs. Baijayant “Jay” Panda, the BJD MP against whom Satpathy appeared to insinuate without actually naming him, responded immediately by pointing to Satpathy’s suspension for anti-party activities in the past. He followed it up with a lengthy article in the leading Odia daily The Samaja the very next day, hinting that Patnaik had tolerated corruption and protected criminal elements in the party and calling on him to “introspect.” With this, the cracks in the hitherto impregnable BJD fortress became clearly visible.
The exercise to repair these cracks has now begun in earnest, as Patnaik himself leads the way with an image makeover. He has already hinted at an overhaul of both the party organisation and his council of ministers. More important, however, are the changes in his style of working. Though he has always been happy to have someone else run the party on his behalf, there is now a discernible effort to get into the nitty-gritty of party affairs. In a visible departure from past practice, Patnaik met panchayat representatives elected in February in batches for extended deliberations in an effort to understand the problems the party faces, and to draw a road map to regain its unassailable position in the state’s politics. He followed it up with a meeting with all BJD MPs in Delhi in the second week of April.
Patnaik’s sudden opening up to party members has been accompanied by a conscious effort to live down his image as someone completely dependent on bureaucrats—not just to run the government, but even the party. In one clear indication of this, in early April, he overshot his schedule for an interaction with elected panchayat representatives, and kept bureaucrats waiting for around an hour for him. The chief minister appears to have realised that it has been a mistake to be over-dependent on the bureaucracy and that there is no substitute for political counsel. Party members are not complaining.
His interactions with the media, too, have undergone a dramatic change in the period since the panchayat polls setback. Gone is the haughty Patnaik, who, every time he had to appear before television cameras, would read out from a written text and then leave in a huff without so much as a “thank you,” even as reporters shot questions at him. Instead, Patnaik now smiles, speaks extempore and actually waits for questions from reporters. Journalists, therefore, are not complaining about the change either.
While it is easy to see the idea behind these moves, some of his other steps have confused people. In one of his first acts after the panchayat elections, Patnaik asked one of his party MPs in the Rajya Sabha, Bishnu Das, to resign from his seat. It was soon after this that his sister Gita and her husband, the publisher Sonny Mehta, landed in Bhubaneswar. They spent nearly a week at Naveen Nivas, the chief minister’s residence, fuelling speculation that she might replace Das. Somewhat fanciful theories were floated about Patnaik leaving for the United States for a surgery that he had allegedly been postponing, leaving the party in his sister’s care in his absence. While Patnaik dismissed all speculation about his health problems almost immediately after a story about his impending US visit appeared on the website Narada News, he took nearly a week to set the record straight about his sister, and make clear that she had no intention of taking any political post. Two party MPs told me that he wanted to replace Das with a trusted person who could warn him in time if his party MPs began building bridges with the BJP.
But the big question is: will these changes prove sufficient to arrest the downslide, especially with a resurgent BJP constantly breathing down his neck? Among other moves, the Narendra Modi government has announced its intention to bring back into focus a meandering CBI investigation into a widespread chit fund scam that flourished in the state between 2006 and 2013, allegedly under the patronage of BJD leaders. Ground reports suggest that a majority of the estimated one million people—and their families—who were financially ruined by the chit fund scam voted against the BJD in the panchayat elections. A possible CBI probe into a mining scam, worth at least Rs 60,000 crore according to a commission of inquiry headed by Justice MB Shah, could be even more damaging for the BJD. The commission’s report has implicated the state’s bureaucracy and political leadership in the scam and recommended a CBI inquiry into it.
The CBI’s pressure on scams, however, is only a small part of the elaborate strategy drawn up by the BJP to dislodge the BJD and capture power in 2019. For over two years now, party workers have fanned out into the countryside to recruit new members. The party claims that two million new members have been added during this period. BJP workers have adopted a two-pronged strategy to win support at the grassroots. On the one hand, they have been selling the Modi government’s flagship schemes such as Ujjwala, Jan Dhan and Bima Yojana—aimed at providing gas connections, financial inclusion and insurance schemes, respectively—to the people. On the other, they have been highlighting the alleged corruption and anti-people measures that have characterised the BJD’s long years in power. Simultaneously, the BJP has embarked on a public-relations onslaught with a particular focus on the use of social media to get the youth on its side.
An important part of the BJP’s strategy to win Odisha has been the building up of the union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan as the chief ministerial face for the next election. For his part, Pradhan has systematically nipped in the bud any possible challenge to his emergence as the party’s face in Odisha with the blessings of the big two in BJP—Modi and party chief Amit Shah. Patnaik has long benefitted from what is often called the there-is-no-alternative, or TINA, factor, but Pradhan’s emergence threatens to change the equation.
There is little doubt that Patnaik faces a formidable challenge, perhaps the biggest in his 20-year-long career, in the shape of a gung-ho BJP. He has given enough indication that he has realised the gravity of the situation and is going to pull out all stops to meet the challenge in 2019.
Sandeep Sahu is a senior Bhubaneswar-based journalist, who has worked for various local, national and international media houses for over three decades. He has been reporting for the BBC from Odisha for over 22 years now.