Ashwini Vaishnaw's Rajya Sabha nomination hints at renewed 'BJP-BJD bonhomie'

Congress slammed BJD's charade of maintaining equidistance

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have made sure not to criticise each other Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have made sure not to criticise each other | PTI

Union Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw filed his nomination as the BJP's Rajya Sabha candidate from Odisha on Thursday with Biju Janata Dal's backing for the second time. This comes just about two weeks after Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik displayed a rare bonhomie during the inaugural event of the IIM campus in western Odisha’s Sambalpur where the PM addressed the latter as “my mitra (friend) Shriman Naveen Patnaik”.

The previous time Vaishnaw, a former Odisha cadre 1994 batch non-Odia IAS officer, got nominated as the BJP's Upper House candidate with BJD support was in 2019, following the Lok Sabha and state assembly elections. This time, the only difference is that it happened ahead of the polls.

Naturally, it has a different political message. While extending the party’s support for Vaishnaw, BJD supremo Patnaik has maintained that it is in the larger interest of the state’s railways and telecom development. However, the irked Congress leaders have alleged an unholy nexus between the BJD and BJP, pointing out that the Odisha ruling party's "charade" of maintaining equidistance with the two national parties is now over. Of course, Vaishnaw, 54, who joined the Central cabinet in 2021, has been generous to Odisha as far as the railways' development is concerned.

This time, there are three vacancies from Odisha in the Rajya Sabha. Logically, BJD with 108 MLAs in the 147 member state assembly could win all the three seats, but the party had announced two names and kept mum about its third candidate. Ex-MLA Debasish Samantray and Subhasish Khuntia, who had played an active role in the recently completed Puri Jagannath temple's Parikrama Prakalpa (heritage corridor project), have filed their nominations under the BJD ticket. With Vaishnaw’s tenure ending and BJD not announcing its third candidate, there were speculations that he might get renominated with the support of Patnaik's party.

Since there is no fourth candidate from the opposition, Vaishnaw and two BJD candidates will be elected unopposed. The election is due to be held on February 27, and the last date to file nomination was Wednesday. BJD leaders feel Vaishnaw will get an important portfolio if the BJP comes to power at the Centre again and Odisha will be benefited again. Vaishnaw, who reached Bhubaneswar on Wednesday, thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for giving him the opportunity to serve people. “I am a disciplined BJP worker. The party takes all the decisions in my public life,” he said.

Vaishnaw going to the Rajya Sabha from Odisha with BJD support could have some political ramifications. While BJD is the ruling party in Odisha, the BJP is its main opponent with Congress as a poor third. Despite the aggressive approach of state BJP leaders towards BJD, the central leadership has maintained a softer stand. At the national level, everybody knows the two parties are close to each other. BJD has always supported the Modi government in presidential elections, important bills, and other issues in Parliament. During Modi’s second tenure, none of the Union ministers spoke against the BJD government. And whenever Union Home Minister Amit Shah came to Odisha, he praised the state government.

CM Patnaik has given a high rating of eight out of 10 to PM Modi’s performance. When the PM visited Sambalpur, he did not utter a word against BJD or Patnaik. Rather, he criticised the Congress. In the public meeting, he highlighted the achievements and schemes of the Centre that have benefited various sections of society in Odisha over the past decade. In the same event, the chief minister praised Modi for India’s economic progress. “The honourable prime minister has set a new direction for India. We are on the path to becoming an economic powerhouse,” he said.

Congress has lately been pointing out that BJD and BJP are together. Recently, Rahul Gandhi, while passing through Odisha as part of his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra, repeated the same allegation.

Congress Odisha in-charge Dr Ajoy Kumar said his party, during a mock event, solemnised a marriage between the BJD and BJP following the prime minister’s Odisha visit. Modi’s silence on Naveen and BJD proved that they are no longer rivals, he said. After Vaishnaw's Rajya Sabha entry got BJD's support for a second time, Dr Kumar wrote in an X post, “BJP-BJD bonhomie! The ‘Tactical Larger plan’ of the two erstwhile ‘married alliance’ is on the move! ‘BJD always backed BJP’ Now the Odias understand why CBI- ED never conducted a raid on the CM and his close aide Mr Pandian even though the state witnessed ‘Massive Scams’.”

Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) President Sarat Patnaik posted on X, “The unholy nexus between BJD and BJP stands exposed as BJD supports BJP’s Rajya Sabha candidate. Odisha deserves better than this backroom deal. Congress is the only alternative committed to the state’s progress and the people’s welfare.” In another post, the PCC chief wrote, “ODISHA BETRAYED! BJD backing of BJP Rajya Sabha candidate lays bare their secret pact. It’s time for Odisha to reject this connivance and embrace the real vote of change—Congress. Let’s put an end to this political opportunism and usher in genuine development.”

Former OPCC President Niranjan Patnaik also took to X and wrote, “Time’s up for BJD’s ‘equidistant’ façade! The charade is over; BJD is BJP. A BJP MP is also a BJD MP; the truth is crystal clear. Odisha deserves truthful representation, not a deceptive political game!”

But state BJP President Manmohan Samal said there is no chance of any alliance with the BJD and exuded confidence that they will form a government on their own in Odisha. He said, “We have fielded a candidate. We are confident of winning. It is Naveen Patnaik who should answer why he supported our candidate.”

The BJP has 22 MLAs in the state. It needs 15 more to win. If BJD had fielded a third candidate, there would have been no chance of a BJP candidate’s victory.

In the meantime, Rajya Sabha MP and BJD General Secretary Manas Ranjan Mangaraj posted on X, “There is no compromise with Odisha’s interest. Development must continue in a federal structure with cooperative federalism. This is the reason why Hon’ble Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik decided to extend support to Hon'ble Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishaw for Rajya Sabha in the larger interest of the state’s railways and telecom development.”

Muna Khan, another BJD MP in the Rajya Sabha, has ruled out any alliance between the BJD and the BJP. He said the support for Vaishnaw is only in the larger interest of the development of the railway and telecom sectors.

Amid the renewed Modi-Patnaik bonhomie and BJD’s backing for the BJP’s RS candidate, there is talk about a possible electoral alliance between the two parties in the upcoming polls. The alliance was broken before the 2009 general elections, though the BJD-BJP together had won the 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections as well as the 2000 and 2004 assembly elections. But due to Sangh Parivar's alleged involvement in the communal riots in Kandhamal district in 2008, Patnaik broke the alliance, and since then, the BJD has been fighting all the elections alone and successfully. Patnaik’s last three terms since 2009 had only BJD MLAs in the ministry.

Patnaik, the longest serving chief minister in the country, is eying a sixth tenure. Former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, during his recent meetings organised by the BJP in coastal Odisha, criticised the BJD government and claimed that the BJP will form the next government in Odisha. Since simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections are coming, leaders of both parties have to speak against each other. Of course, unlike last time, there was no BJD leader joining Vaishnaw when he filed the nomination on Wednesday. This could be a message for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

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