When the non-Congress, non-BJP Third Front took shape in Delhi on February 25, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik was conspicuous by his absence.
This baffled many because Patnaik was one of the main proponents of the front and his party took part in previous meetings of the 11-party conglomeration on core issues of fighting communalism and taking a united stand in Parliament.
So what’s on Patnaik’s mind? After all, he had taken a stand of equidistance from the Congress and the BJP not long ago and seems well entrenched in Odisha.
Those who have followed Patnaik’s career assert that his backtracking from the Third Front is a calculated move to keep his party Biju Janata Dal’s options open after the election results are out.
Many political analysts are of the opinion that the real reasons for Patnaik keeping his alliance options open revolve largely around a CBI enquiry having been recommended against his government by the MB Shah Commission report on the huge mining scam in Odisha.
The commission, which probed the scam, said in its report that minerals worth Rs 60,000 crore were looted in the state.
A BJD leader, who did not want to be named, said, “Patnaik was in an enviable position before the Shah Commission report was out, with both the Congress and the BJP counting on him as a post-election ally despite his pro-Third Front posturing. But now the situation has changed because if the NDA comes to power, the report may be used as an instrument to target Patnaik.”
Political observers see the BJD chief’s recent distancing from the Third Front as a message to the BJP that all might not be lost between them. “Patnaik’s politics is need-based. In 2009, he tied up with the Left parties to purge the BJD’s sin of aligning with the communal BJP,” said political analyst Sampad Mahapatra.
“For the 2014 elections, he has spurned the same Left parties because the state’s marginal minority votes (less than 6%) do not make a difference,” he added.
Several such moves – some unpredictable, some unconventional, but all reaping rich political dividends — have guided Patnaik’s entire political career of 17 years, most of it in power.
It is now part of folklore how early in his career, the supposedly politically naïve Patnaik clipped the wings of Bijay Mohapatra, one of the architects and most powerful leaders of the BJD, with clinical precision by denying him a ticket just before the 2000 assembly elections.
Less than nine years later, he snapped ties with coalition partner BJP before the 2009 general elections following anti-Christian riots. Three years later he crushed a rebellion by former mentor Pyarimohan Mohapatra.
All these moves and a slew of sops dressed up as welfare measures — cheap rice, free cycles, free laptops, financial aid for pregnant women and cremation — have consolidated Patnaik’s position in Odisha’s electoral firmament as reflected in the recently concluded municipal polls this year.
With the BJD’s prospects of winning most of the 21 seats in the state appearing bright at the moment, Patnaik has taken a safe bet by keeping all post-electoral options open.