When the Biju Janata Dal was formed 17 years ago, the response was lukewarm to cold. For, there was no Biju Patnaik to lead the new outfit and his son Naveen Patnaik, a political greenhorn, looked like a reluctant leader.
After a short stint as a Union minister in the NDA government, Patnaik, however, led the party to defeat the Congress — the most powerful party in the state till then — with the BJP as a coalition partner in 2000. It has been 14 years since then, and Patnaik still rules Odisha.
Meanwhile, he had to take a series of hard decisions —severing his ties with the BJP in 2009 after the anti-Christian riots in the Kandhamal region, quenching a rebellion by his former mentor, Pyarimohan Mohapatra, in 2012 and suffering a dent in his well-cultivated squeaky-clean image due to the mining, chit fund and some other scams.
But that could not stop him from strengthening his own position inside the BJD as its unchallenged leader and his party’s position in Odisha’s electoral space. At the same time, his rivals, the Congress and the BJP, suffered massive erosions in their support bases.
Observers feel the BJD is far ahead of the opposition parties when it comes to devising political strategies. After containing Mohapatra, Patnaik focused on endearing himself to the masses by announcing a series of schemes, offering cheap rice, free cycles and umbrellas and financial aids for pregnant women and even cremation.
The result was there for all to see: In the recently concluded municipal elections in Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Berhampur and other urban centres, the BJD trounced the opposition.
The victory motivated the party rank and file for a repeat performance in the 2014 general elections. The BJD has also consolidated its position in the western parts of Odisha — a traditional stronghold of the Congress and the BJP.
“People of the state realise very well that the government has done a lot for their welfare. They will return us to power with overwhelming majority in the next elections,” said health minister and senior party leader Damodar Rout.
To make the party more performance-oriented, Patnaik has got several internal surveys conducted to assess his elected representatives. A party source said many unpopular ones would be replaced.
Curiously, Patnaik has entrusted government officers, especially district collectors, with the task of identifying individuals —not necessarily party members —who were acceptable to people in their respective areas.
While all this is happening in the BJD camp, the Congress and the BJP are in complete disarray. A political observer said on condition of anonymity: “The main reason why the BJD is still going strong is that both its rivals have failed to take up the common man’s issues and offer credible leadership.”
But all is not yet lost for the opposition parties. The Congress, which has been out of power for the past 14 years, still has some support base in the rural areas. A positive development was the victory of Congress’ Ranjib Biswal in the recent Rajya Sabha elections.
Party workers claim if the Congress maintains transparency in its ticket distribution process, it might deliver a big jolt to Patnaik, since many BJD MLAs and MPs have become too unpopular in their areas.
What’s more, the Congress has been lying so low that it has the advantages of an underdog. The observer said, “Even if the BJP’s vote-share increases due to the Modi factor, the Congress, as the main opposition, will gain.”
The BJP, on the other hand, is known for running a tight ship with a committed cadre-base. It was on show when it organised the mammoth rally for its prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi on February 11 in Bhubaneswar. But the party’s top state leadership is still groping for a suitable strategy and hopes for the Modi magic to work.