PM’s phone call to Naveen Patnaik signals thaw in frosty BJP-BJD relations
The Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) likely support to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate in the election for the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman on Thursday is the third sign in recent weeks of a new warmth in the otherwise frosty, even hostile, relationship between Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s party and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It is also a part of a larger ‘softening’ of ties between the two parties as their goals converge, said two leaders, one from each party.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to Patnaik over phone to seek his support for the deputy chairman’s election, according to people familiar with the matter, and the two leaders cited above described the gesture as illustrative of a direct engagement between the top leaders of the two parties.
Even before that, the BJD did not support the Opposition’s no-trust vote against the Narendra Modi government in the Lok Sabha on July 20 — the message was communicated to MPs just minutes before the debate started — and stood with the government on the issue of National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam.
Patnaik had also supported Modi’s call in June for simultaneous assembly and parliamentary elections across the country. Odisha already votes simultaneously for the parliamentary and assembly elections.
On Tuesday, Patnaik turned down Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar’s request for support to the Opposition’s candidate in election for the Rajya Sabha deputy chairman, telling him that he had already told Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar that he would support Janata Dal (United) leader Harivansh, according to people familiar with the development.
“There is a certain climbdown in position from both the sides — BJP and BJD,” one of Patnaik’s aides said on condition of anonymity. “There is a realisation on both sides that they may need each other after polls.”
“Naveen is least interested in politics of Delhi,” this person added. “He wants to be comfortable in Bhubaneswar. The changed equation brings that comfort.” Also, he added, it helps keep the door open in case he needs support from outside to run the state.
“Between the BJP and the Congress, the former will be the choice,” the aide said
The BJP pushed Patnaik’s traditional arch-rival, the Congress, to the third position and emerged as his principal challenge during the last year’s panchayat elections in Odisha. But the general sense in the party’s state unit and the central leadership is that while the BJP will strive to expand as much as it can in Odisha, it may not be able to replace the BJD as the number one party in the state in 2019, said a second senior BJP leader who asked not to be named.
He added that the BJP does not want the Congress to benefit from a fight between the two parties. It, therefore,wants to keep the channels of communication open with the BJD, which is not an ideological antagonist, has been part of the NDA, and also stayed away from the efforts to join a federal front against Modi.
“There is a change in the BJP’s approach towards Naveen,” Bhubaneswar-based political commentator Rabi Dash said. “The PM did not attack the Odisha chief minister during his rally in Cuttack on the fourth anniversary (of the NDA’s rule). BJP president Amit Shah has also avoided a personalised attack on the BJD leader during his visit.”
“Naveen is more anti-Congress than anti-BJP,” Dash added. “He has interestingly not given opinion on issues like mob lynching, which creates discomfort for the BJP.”
The new dynamic also helps Patnaik, a second BJD leader who asked not to be identified said, as it takes away BJP’s aggression at the local level and come with the benefits of a “helpful Centre” in an election year.