Watering vote bank


The Mahanadi and the Polavaram issues would come in handy for Naveen Patnaik in strengthening his vote base

In six months, Naveen Patnaik will complete 17 years as chief minister of Odisha. A record none of his predecessors could boast, including his father, the legendary Biju Patnaik, on whose birthday Naveen took oath of office on March 5, 2000. Naveen is in his fourth straight term as chief minister, and water disputes with neighbouring states could help him sail into a fifth term in 2019. The barrages being built in the Mahanadi in Chhattisgarh and the plan to construct the Polavaram multi-purpose irrigation project in Andhra Pradesh have raised passions in Odisha. 

Odisha has been opposing the Polavaram project saying more than 206 villages in its Malkangiri and Rayagada districts would be inundated by the backwaters of the proposed dam, which the Centre has declared as a national project.

Regarding the Mahanadi, Odisha says Chhattisgarh is building barrages without consulting it. Odisha says the barrages would reduce water flow into the state. The Mahanadi, which originates in Chhattisgarh, flows through Odisha. Said Naveen, “The Mahanadi is the lifeline of Odisha and 65 per cent of our population is dependent on it, as this river touches 16 out of the 30 districts in the state.”

The political climate in Odisha is hotting up in the water issue. The principal opposition party, the Congress, has been critical of the ruling Biju Janata Dal’s handling of the issue.

The Congress, however, has suffered an erosion of strength, having had a series of defeats in the Lok Sabha and assembly polls. The BJP is active, as it is in power at the Centre, and hopes to replace the Congress, if not displace the BJD.  

The Congress and the BJP have projected comparatively younger leaders against the 70-year-old Naveen. While the Congress has former minister Prasad Harichandan as the party president in the state, the BJP is led by Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dharmendra Pradhan.

On the Mahanadi and the Polavaram issues, the BJD, as a provincial party, is better placed than the Congress and the BJP.

The BJP in Odisha remains defensive as it is in power in Chhattisgarh. In Andhra Pradesh, the ruling Telugu Desam Party is a partner in the National Democratic Alliance led by the BJP. 

The Congress, too, is on a weak footing as it was the Manmohan Singh government which had declared Polavaram a national project. 

Odisha is planning to take the Mahanadi water dispute to the Supreme Court as a tripartite meeting has failed to make any headway. When Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti called a meeting of the two chief ministers on September 17, Naveen asked his Chhattisgarh counterpart, Raman Singh, to stop construction of the barrages till an independent expert committee examined the issue and gave its opinion. But Raman Singh did not agree; he said Chhattisgarh was using only 15 per cent of the Mahanadi water, while Odisha was using 35 per cent.

After this meeting in Delhi, Naveen called a cabinet meeting in Bhubaneswar to discuss the issue. It was decided that the government would do everything possible to protect Odisha’s interest. All viable alternatives are being considered, including seeking the help of the prime minister. 

In his early days as chief minister, Naveen got support from people in Odisha only because he was the son of Biju Patnaik, who had a mass base. But later, Naveen came out of the shadow of his father and created his own legacy by getting tough against corruption. 

Naveen has always had a clean image. But his party members were involved in scandals. In 2009, there was the mining scam. After that came the chit fund scandal; a CBI probe was launched against a few BJD leaders. But, unlike Mamata Banerjee in neighbouring West Bengal, Naveen acted in time and removed an MP and an MLA from the party after they were arrested by the CBI.

The BJD has always relied on anti-Congress wave in Odisha. Naveen was once the rallying point of the anti-Congress elements. But now the BJP is trying to expand its base in Odisha. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited the state three times this year. Though Modi and Naveen have not been critical of each other, there have been confrontations between workers of their parties. In June, when Union ministers Santosh Gangwar and Niranjan Jyoti—along with former Jharkhand chief minister Arjun Munda—were travelling to Bargarh in western Odisha, a few BJD workers damaged their vehicles. This prompted Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh to telephone Naveen, who acted promptly. The local BJD MLA and his followers were booked for attempt to murder. A few BJP workers were also arrested for waving black flags at the BJD ministers.

Naveen’s USP is his public perception management skill. He acts immediately when an issue crops up. When Dana Majhi, the poor tribal from Kalahandi district, walked 10km with his dead wife on his shoulder, Naveen reacted to the public outrage by announcing a new medical college in Kalahandi, with infrastructure support from the Vedanta group. The government also launched the Mahaprayan scheme for taking the dead from hospitals to their houses free of cost.  

Recently, when some activists agitated, demanding the use of Odiya language in administrative work, the government acceded by bringing out an ordinance. Interestingly, Naveen has faced unending criticism for his lack of fluency in Odiya.

The panchayat election in the state is only six months away, and Naveen is busy announcing populist schemes. Most of them are named after his father.

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