At 71, Naveen More Combative Than Ever

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Age for chief minister, Naveen Patnaik is just a number. His political instincts have sharpened and he is willing to work hard. He has also turned into a more inspirational leader who can lead his cadres by example. Patnaik also knows that BJP is his main enemy in the state and is ready to take on the saffron outfit.

Chief minister, Naveen Patnaik has turned 71 but age has not diminished any of his energy. Nor has it dulled his political acumen. In fact, now Naveen seems to be more combative and ready to take on his political enemies, specially the BJP. He has drawn the battle lines firmly with the saffron party.

This is because realization has dawned that 2019 is going to be a battle between his party, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and a resurgent BJP. Hence his ambivalence towards the saffron party is gone as it would, like in the past, send confusing signals to his cadres.

Now it’s an all out war with the BJP with Naveen leading from the front. The chief minister seems to be firing on all cylinders. Launching BJD’s Jan Sampark padyatra from a capital slum on October 2 he warned his enemy.   “Some parties (read BJP) are indulging in malicious propaganda. People will give them a fitting reply,” said Naveen as he also targeted the Centre for treating Odisha in a step-motherly fashion, not conceding its demand for being treated as a special category state.

As if this was not enough he also deployed one of his most experienced ministers, Damodar Rout to debunk Centre’s claim about BJP-ruled states being better than others in the country. Rout reeled out statistics to prove that Odisha had done better than many BJP states including Rajasthan and Gujrat in crucial areas indicative of development.

This was followed by BJD Dalit Cell’s demonstration against atrocities on dalits in BJP-ruled states like UP and Gujarat. The party’s dalit cell chief, former minister, Bishnu Das even expressed his willingness to campaign against BJP in the upcoming Gujrat elections.

All this stands in sharp contrast to the past when on the instructions of the chief minister the BJD had lent NDA a helping hand in getting the controversial Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Bill passed in the Rajya Sabha in May 2016. Hoping to gain by maintaining a cordial relationship with the BJP Naveen’s party had also extended support to NDA’s presidential nominee, Ram Nath Kovind who went on to become the President of India.

No wonder in the wake of Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar returning to the NDA fold speculation was rife that Naveen would do the same. But any such hopes were put paid to by the increasing aggression of state BJP which seems to be on the upswing since winning 297 zila parishad seats, a record for the party, in the panchayat polls held in February.

This was followed by BJP president, Amit Shah coining the slogan of Mission 120+  for the next assembly elections in the state which Shah has been visiting frequently with his tone against Naveen government getting increasingly strident. The BJP, which has, for all practical purposes, replaced the Congress as the main opposition party in the state, has also been making personal attacks on the chief minister, questioning his ‘clean’ image and demanding that his election expenses be brought under scrutiny.

Thanks to the internecine war of the Congress which seems to be going downhill despite having 16 MLAs, six more than BJP, power equations in the state have changed emphatically. Unless the Congress stages a dramatic recovery, which seems completely unexpected at the moment, the next election should see a direct battle between BJP and BJD.

With BJP growing at a fast clip Naveen seems to have decided that offence is the best defence. But he is conducting this war tactfully, even seeking an image makeover for the purpose. The usually aloof chief minister has suddenly become accessible to people and would even oblige the occasional selfie-seeker.

This has helped him enlist popular support in his fight against the Centre that seems to be his party’s raison d’etre. “ Our fight is against the anti-Odisha stance of the Centre. It will continue till we get justice,” said BJD Rajya Sabha member, Prasanna Acharya reflecting the thoughts of his leader.

But the BJP remains undeterred and convinced that it’s hour has struck. “ The chief minister is trying to divert popular attention from the scandals rocking his government by pointing accusing fingers at the Centre. The truth is he is scared of BJP’s phenomenal growth and Prime Minister’s growing popularity,” said party MLA, Pradeep Purohit.

Purohit also pointed at some recent developments such as Congress strongman late Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra’s daughter Upasana and his brother, Lalitendu  joining the BJP in presence of union minister Dharmendra Pradhan.  Eminent lawyer Pitambar Acharya and former Youth Congress president Satyajeet Patnaik also joined the saffron party. That was following by Hemgiri royal family member Sunil Singh entering the saffron fold.

Following this development the BJP is hopeful of strengthening its base in the coastal belt. BJP considers Upasana to be its trump card in the undivided Puri district where her father, popularly known as Lulu had considerable influence.

Soon after joining the party, Upasana accused the Congress of neglecting her father. “My father had made supreme sacrifice for the party but the party failed to address his concerns,” she said.

Stating that switching loyalty to BJP was one of the toughest decisions of her life, Upasana said “Despite giving everything to the Congress, the party continued to neglect him.  We discussed all these issues with the people of Brahmagiri who are like our family members. With their consent, we decided to join the BJP.”

Bolstered by these developments the BJP has sharpened its attack on Naveen Patnaik government.   Union petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan took the opportunity to target Naveen.  “You (Naveen) cannot fool the people anymore. The countdown has already begun,” Pradhan said.

The Congress, much to the delight of the BJP, is on the decline with several leaders deserting the party. In April, Congress strongman from Dhenknal Sudhir Samal had joined the BJD followed by  District Congress Committee (DCC) president of Koraput Narayan Patro and then Rita Sahu, the wife of the sitting MLA late Subhal Sahu  joined the ruling party. From all appearances then 2019 should be a direct battle between BJP and BJD.

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