Naveen Patnaik is doing everything that runs counter to the opposition’s effort to forge an alliance against the BJP in 2019.
Naveen Patnaik’s personality and politics seem like a riddle wrapped inside an enigma. A person who stayed away from the heat and dust of Odia politics for nearly first 50 years of his life is now the chief minister of the state for a fourth consecutive term.
And, if all goes according to his plans, it is likely that Patnaik would continue with a fifth term, albeit in a coalition this time. Much like when he first took oath as Odisha’s CM in 2000.
How did Naveen babu acquire such a dominant position within the state politics? And why his political moves, although puzzling, may solidify his position?
For starters, Patnaik is doing everything, which must be making him an eyesore to anyone who is looking forward to a united opposition against the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 elections. In July this year, his party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), decided to abstain from voting during the no-confidence motion in Parliament. And in August, the BJD supported National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate Harivansh Narayan Singh in the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman election.
These two instances were not the first occasion when the BJD overtly supported the Modi government. The BJD is one of the few opposition parties to support the government on contentious issues such as demonetisation and simultaneous elections (although the BJD later sought a white paper on demonetisation). It voted in favour of the government on key legislation like FDI in Insurance and the Goods and Services Tax (GST). It also supported the BJP’s presidential election nominee Ram Nath Kovind.
While it never felt a need to explain the reasons for supporting the government on these issues, the party defended its action when it favoured Gopalkrishna Gandhi over Venkaiah Naidu during the vice-presidential election. The BJD leaders said their decision to support Gandhi should be seen as a matter of regard for his long-time association with Patnaik rather than a confrontation with the BJP.
Why is the BJD siding with the BJP-led government at the Centre when the two parties are engaged in a bitter battle in the state? In the last few years, there have been numerous instances of public clashes between local workers of both the parties. Both are constantly trying to outmanoeuvre the other in the run-up to next year’s election. The BJP has left no stone unturned to expand its foothold in Odisha, most evident in its decision to organise the Narendra Modi government’s fourth anniversary rally in Cuttack. Why does then Patnaik not attack Modi in his speeches like leaders of other opposition parties do?
One can think of two possible explanations for Patnaik’s behaviour. First, many describe Patnaik as a non-confrontationist politician. The claim that he likes to be aligned with the central government is rather weak. For example, during the UPA-2 rule, he opposed the central government on numerous occasions. In fact, Patnaik and Jayalalithaa actively tried to pursue the idea of a federal front. The BJD was also the first to propose P.A. Sangma’s name for the presidential election in 2012. Similarly, on issues like the National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), it actively tried to mobilise support among various chief ministers against the Centre.
The second explanation, which many seem to be alluding to, is borne out of the emerging electoral arithmetic in the state due to the rise of the BJP as a third force. What these analysts have missed is that the electoral reason should rather push the BJD towards the Congress. After all, both parties will gain from such a partnership.
In the 2014 assembly elections, although the BJP managed to improve its vote share in comparison to 2009, it stood a distant third behind the Congress and the BJD. The party won only one Lok Sabha seat and 10 assembly seats that year.
Since then, the BJP has established itself as the principal opposition force in the state following last year’s panchayat elections. We analysed the results of the zila parishad (district council) elections available on the Odisha State Election Commission website, and the results suggest that the BJP was far ahead of the Congress. Of the 849 seats, the BJD won 476, the BJP 297 and the Congress 60 seats respectively.
What is important to note here, and why Patnaik may need a coalition partner to win his fifth term, is the re-emergence of a regional divide in Odia politics, which dictated electoral outcomes in the pre-BJD era. Although the BJP made substantial inroads in western districts of Odisha (bordering Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh) in the panchayat elections, the BJD managed to hold on to its position in coastal Odisha (See Figures 1-4).
Figure 1: BJD district-wise vote share – 2014 Assembly Election
Figure 2: BJP district-wise vote share – 2014 Assembly Election
Figure 3: BJD district-wise proportion of seats won – 2017 Zila Parishad Election
Figure 4: BJP district-wise proportion of seats won – 2017 Zila Parishad Election
This regional divide, if it prevails during the next election, will mean that no party will get a majority. While the BJD may emerge as the frontrunner, the BJP will not be far behind due to the party’s concentrated strength in western districts of Odisha. The Congress, however, may end up winning fewer seats because its vote share is evenly spread across the state.
A pre-electoral alliance with the Congress seems a more lucrative option because it may boost the BJD’s chances. Why is Patnaik then not making overtures towards the Congress? Is he simply continuing with the legacy of his father’s anti-Congress politics? Or, is favouring the BJP over the Congress driven by cold calculations?
In a recently released biography of Patnaik, journalist Ruben Banerjee describes him as “wily, shrewd, calculating and clinically cold. He could destroy rivals without batting an eyelid and betraying any emotion”.
The best option for Naveen babu, who is possibly looking at a fifth consecutive term, is to ensure that the contest in Odisha does not become a direct fight between him and Modi. An alliance with the Congress would allow the BJP to do so. According to the latest national survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in May 2018, Modi remains extremely popular in the state and voters seem highly satisfied with the performance of the central government.
This possibility of a shift in the electoral discourse in which the BJP gets to set the narrative lies at the heart of Patnaik’s puzzling behaviour. Moreover, keeping the BJP in good humour opens up many more options for him than he can have by siding with the Congress.
The writers are PhD students in political science at the University of California at Berkeley, US.