Odisha elections phase 4: CM Patnaik's date with history, BJP's aggressive campaigning and the Pandian factor

BJP launched an all-out attack to seize power from Naveen Patnaik's BJD

Naveen Patnaik Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Supremo Naveen Patnaik during a public meeting in Kendrapara | PTI

Political pundits will admit that Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janta Dal supremo Naveen Patnaik, 77, faced the most aggressive challenge of his  27-year-old political career from Bharatiya Janta Party this time. Led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who on February 3 called CM Patnaik  ‘Param Mitra’ (dearest friend), made four trips during four phases of the election to lead campaigns.

Earlier, Prime Minister Modi had said he prioritized the development of Odisha over maintaining amicable ties with Naveen Patnaik. In an interview with ANI, he had said,’ If I had to sacrifice my relations, I will do that for Odisha’s bright future. Here is the question  whether I should bother about  maintaining my relations or should I think about Odisha’s fate." 

That the onslaught by BJP was such that it unleashed an army of central ministers and party heavyweights including Union Home  Minister Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh, Nitin  Gadkari S.Jayashankar, Smruti Irani, Assam Chief Ministers Himanta  Biswa party chief J P Nadda to take Patnaik head-on. 

Naveen Patnaik, meanwhile, conducted himself in his usual western liberal lingo and countered Modi and co with a befitting grace. The Prime Minister, in his last phase of campaign, expressed concern about Patnaik’s deteriorating health after a viral clip showed his hand trembling. Modi announced that after the BJP comes to power in the state, a special  committee would be formed to probe what led to the sudden deterioration of Patnaik's health. The Chief Minister immediately reacted by saying, "If PM is so concerned about my health after having stated publicly that I am a good friend of his, all he had to do was to pick up the telephone and ring me to enquire about my health. I understand a number of people in BJP in Odisha and Delhi have been spreading rumours about my health for the last ten years. Let me assure PM that I am in perfect health and I have been campaigning in the state since last month. If he were to form a committee, I suggest he form a committee to look into  people who are spreading  such rumours."

Talks bout BJD supporting the Modi government at the national level on major issues and supporting union Railway Minister Aswini Vaishnav’s Rajya Sabha nomination repeatedly for two terms and pre-poll alliance speculation went into the wind after Modi announced during his election campaign that BJD will be out of power and first BJP Chief Minister will take oath on June 10. Modi went on to add that Patnaik cannot name the capitals of Odisha’s districts without seeing papers.

CM Patnaik’s close aide and former bureaucrat Mr V.K.Pandian, who has become BJD's star campaigner, has said that Patnaik will take oath as Chief Minister for the sixth time on June 9. He added that BJD has already got the required number of assembly seats to form the government from the first three phases of polls.

While Prime Minister and BJP leaders raised the bogey of missing keys of Puri Jagannath Temple’s Ratna Bhandar, it was also aimed towards Pandian. Though the Chief Minister has campaigned all over the state, Pandian attended more election rallies than him. So, the BJP broadly wanted to place a narrative that the Chief Minister’s health was failing and Pandian was trying to take over.

Starting from Modi, BJP leaders spoke about Odisha Asmita (pride) which broadly meant a non-Odia is trying to succeed Naveen Patnaik. That way BJP tried to create a feeling and placed itself as the perfect alternative. However, Pandian in the last month countered all allegations of BJP leaders including that of the Prime Minister through statements,  public speeches and media interviews in Odia. He went to the extent of placing Odisha above Gujrat(Modi’s state) in many development parameters through official data.

Just before the last phase of polling Chief Minister told news agency ANI that  Pandian is not his successor and that the people of Odisha will make the decision of picking his heir. The timing of Patnaik’s clarification is crucial. It may be meant to address anti-Pandian feelings prevalent among some sections of voters before the last phase of polling in coastal and north Odisha.

On Pandian taking decisions on his behalf, the Chief Minister said, "this is ridiculous. I have said it often before. This is an old allegation. It holds no weight." On grooming Pandian politically, the Chief Minister said, "I cannot understand these exaggerations. You may have noticed that he is not even standing for election."

But Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarna immediately took to ‘X’ and questioned Naveen’s interview with ANI. "Naveen  Babu was unable to answer why Pandian was the only person  to be seen with him, either holding his mike or controlling his hands." Assam CM further wrote that "Naveen Babu’s successor is immaterial as Pandian already has a firm back door entry in running the administration. He has pervasive control over the Chief Minister’", the Assam CM claimed.

The rivalry between BJD and BJP were seen on different fronts. On BJP’s allegation of interference in the election process, the Election Commission of India suspended Mr D.S.Kuttey, IPS, Special Secretary to Chief Minister and fixed his headquarters at the office of Resident Commissioner, Govt Of Odisha, New Delhi. It ordered a medical test of another IPS officer Asis Singh who is on leave.

The Commission had transferred Sujata Kartikayan IAS from the post of Mission Shakti secretary. Pandian said it was unfortunate that ECI has taken action against such outstanding officers.

Chief Minister in his interview with ANI adopted a cautious stance on potential support for the NDA, indicating a willingness to evaluate the situation when needed. Patnaik said the comments from the BJP  showed their popularity was on the wane. "I see that they are getting more and more desperate particularly as their popularity is waning in the country."

Chief Minister has strongly condemned the rude behaviour of the political leaders coming to the state from outside. In a video statement, he said that opposition leaders are disrespecting him with abusive language. They are making harsh personal attacks, he said adding that the people of Odisha will give them a befitting reply. He said while he never disrespects anyone, outside leaders have ironically come and spoken harshly against him.

Meanwhile, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in his last leg of electioneering repeated that the BJD and BJP are in no real fight. Rahul’s remark came a day after Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge’s comment that  BJD and BJP marriage has ended in divorce. Rahul claimed that Naveen and Modi are partners and both share common ideologies.

Odisha elections: Phase four

In the fourth phase on Saturday, polling is to be held for six Lok Sabha seats of Jagatsinghpur, Jajpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, Balasore and Mayurbhanj and 42 assembly segments in these areas. In 2019, BJD had won 12 Lok Sabha seats and 112 assembly seats in the state out of 21   and 147 respectively.

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