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Patnaik readies for a battle he can’t afford to

Patnaik readies for a battle he can’t afford to
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First Published: Thu, Apr 23 2009. 12 30 AM IST
Updated: Tue, Apr 28 2009. 09 00 PM IST
Kendrapada, Orissa: As Orissa votes in the second and final phase of simultaneous polls to the assembly and the Lok Sabha on Thursday, chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader Naveen Patnaik’s political prestige is on the line after he decided to go it alone by ending a 11-year alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The BJD snapped ties with the the BJP on 7 March, vowing to work towards forming a non-BJP, non-Congress coalition government at the Centre by joining the so-called Third Front led by the Left.
Analysts see the decision as a political gamble by Patnaik in a state where his new-found allies such as the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and the Left have little political base.The BJD requires the support of at least 74 legislators in the 147-member assembly to retain power.
“He (Patnaik) is trying to come out of the shadow of the BJP and become a leader on his own right. If he succeeds, he will become a national leader. And if he fails, he will go home,” said Rabi Das, a senior journalist and political commentator based in Bhubaneswar, the state capital.
The election is “very crucial” for Patnaik, especially given expectations that it would produce a hung assembly after a fractured verdict by the electorate, said S.N. Mishra, a professor of political science at Bhubaneswar’s Utkal University. Patnaik may have been emboldened to pitchfork the BJD into the electoral contest on its own after the party’s victory in recent urban elections, Mishra said.
For sure, Patnaik enjoys a reputation for probity in public life. His being the son of the late Biju Patnaik, Orissa’s most popular politician and chief minister, also helps.
“There are three reasons for this (why Patnaik has a popular image),” said Das. “First, he is the son of Orissa’s most beloved politician, Biju Patnaik. He has given the impression that he doesn’t work for vested interests and is not surrounded by corrupt people. The man on the street has now appreciation for a different leader. Lastly, he has taken over the non-Congress base built by his father.”
Invoking the father’s name
Biju Patnaik, the political stalwart who became Orissa’s chief minister first as a Congressman from 1961 to 1963, returned to power as chief minister in 1990, heading a non-Congress government led by the Janata Dal until 1995. Naveen Patnik invokes his father’s memory at election rallies to strike a chord with the audience.
“Brothers, please lower the decibel of your slogans, please help me. I have to say something,” Patnaik, clad in his trademark white kurta-paijama, says in Oriya, indicating that his local language skills, derided by the opposition, have improved
“We must work towards fulfilling the dreams of Bijubabu (his father) to make Orissa a developed state,” Naveen Patnaik tells a gathering in Kendrapada Lok Sabha constituency, campaigning for his party’s candidate Baijayant Panda. Biju Patnaik had won from this constituency in 1977, the year when the Congress party secured the rest of the 21 Lok Sabha seats from the state.
Das said the scheme Naveen Patnaik’s government launched some six months ago to sell rice at Rs 2 a kg may also help Patnaik win votes. But it may have helped him more had he announced the scheme as soon as he became chief minister for the second time in 2004, Das said. “He did it just six months before the elections.”
According to Das, new political tie-ups are likely to emerge in the state after the polls. In the first phase of polling on 16 April, voting was held in 10 Lok Sabha and 70 assembly constituencies in the state. On Thursday, elections will be held in the remaining 11 Lok Sabha and 77 assembly seats.
Political realignments
After the polls, the Congress may come to Patnaik’s rescue if he needs support to form the next government, some analysts say.
“The central leadership of Congress party will soon realize that if it wants to return to power in Orissa, it has to project a state leader. In the era of regional politics, a man in the village could not relate himself to (Congress president) Sonia Gandhi or (party general secretary) Rahul Gandhi sitting in Delhi,” Das said.
Mishra also said the Congress may back the BJD to form a government in the state in exchange for support at the Centre. “Even though they have been political opponents in the state, in the eventuality of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) requiring the BJD’s support to form government at the Centre, Sonia Gandhi may order the state leadership to support the BJD in Orissa.”
The BJD is now opposed to the idea of backing a Congress or BJP-led dispensation at the Centre.
Das also doesn’t rule out a split in major political parties in the state, including the BJD. “If the BJD goes out of power and gets only around 60 seats, there may be a split in the BJD,” he said.
The BJP, which was taken aback when Patnaik-led BJD walked out of the coalition, is contesting all assembly and Lok Sabha seats. The two parties had together contested the Lok Sabha elections in 1998, 1999 and 2004, winning a majority of the parliamentary seats in Orissa and two assembly elections in 2000 and 2004, forming successive coalition governments in the state.
Days after pulling out of the alliance with the BJP, Patnaik won a confidence vote in the state assembly on 11 March.
Political arithmetic
BJP state president Suresh Pujari said his party will emerge stronger from this election, but Das maintained the party may not win many more seats than the last election.
In the outgoing assembly, the BJD has 61 members, BJP 30 and the Congress 38. In the 2004 Lok Sabha polls, the BJD won 11 seats, the BJP 7, the Congress 2 and the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) one from the state.
Das and Mishra both say the Congress is unlikely to benefit from the split in the BJD-BJP alliance, partly because of problems in its candidate selection. Das said that Congress will also lose out because the party has not projected former Union minister KP Singh Deo as its chief ministerial candidate.
For the ordinary voter, it doesn’t matter who comes to power. “I have not benefited from any government scheme. If somebody gives me a BPL (below the poverty line) card, then I will vote for him,” says Tija Das, an octogenarian who lives by the roadside in a thatched house with his wife. A BPL card entitles people to subsidized foodgrains.
Maga Behera, a rickshaw puller, is less cynical. “Jie ama peta chinhiba, Ame tara muhan chinhibu (One who recognises our hunger, we will recognize him)”.
asit.m@livemint.com
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First Published: Thu, Apr 23 2009. 12 30 AM IST