An Era Ends As Naveen Bows Out Of Office

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Few read it correctly. But the unthinkable has happened. The BJP, which ruled the state in alliance with the Biju Janata Dal for nearly nine years between 2000 and 2009, has won a majority on its own in the state for the first time in the just concluded elections. With Naveen Patnaik, Odisha’s longest serving chief minister bowing out after a 24-year-long reign, the stage is set for the formation of a BJP government in the state. A new era in Odisha politics is about to begin.

Incredible though it may seem the just concluded elections have brought Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Patnaik’s 24-year-long reign as the chief minister of Odisha to an end. The 77-year-old leader, who held the reins of the state five times consecutively since 2000, failed to fulfil his dream of becoming the longest serving chief minister of the country.

With Patnaik handing over his resignation to governor Raghubar Das the public attention is now focussed on the formation of a new government by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which won a clear majority in the state assembly with 78 out of 147 seats at stake and whom the party would crown as the new chief minister of the state. There are many contenders for the top post with former union minister and winner of Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat Dharmendra Pradhan leading the race. The BJP also won 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state with Congress bagging just one and BJD drawing a blank for the first time.

The once invincible Patnaik seems to have been done in by his overconfidence and overdependence on bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian, who took voluntary retirement from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) last year to join the BJD. Pandian, for all practical purposes, was the face of BJD’s campaign in the state but neither he nor his boss could read the saffron surge that overwhelmed Odisha this time.

The BJP has won 78 assembly seats while the BJD could win only 51 seats. The Congress bagged 14 seats, the CPI (M) one, and independents were victorious in three Assembly constituencies.

Among the BJD heavyweights who fell by the wayside were party’s organisational secretary and second-in-command Pranab Prakash Das aka Bobby who lost to Dharmendra Pradhan from Sambalpur. In the assembly battle, senior ministers Ashok Panda, Pradeep Amat and Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, among others, failed to retain their seats. Chief minister Naveen Patnaik himself lost from Kantabanji, the second seat that he contested. He, however, managed to win from his traditional seat of Hinjili by a narrow margin of 4,636 votes.

The performance of BJD was in sharp contrast to its 2019 show when the party had won 112 assembly and 12 Lok Sabha seats in the state. The BJP, which had bagged only 23 assembly and 8 Lok Sabha seats in the last election, read the popular pulse accurately and registered an emphatic win this time.

While the BJP’s sweep in the Lok Sabha constituencies was not unexpected, it was the surge in its assembly seats which has left many baffled. The credit for BJP’s performance in the state must go to the aggressive campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who visited Odisha repeatedly holding rallies and roadshows. Modi went all out against his friend-turned-foe Naveen Patnaik and also targeted the latter’s man Friday–bureaucrat-turned-politician VK Pandian. The high voltage campaign often turned acrimonious with PM Modi making repeated attacks on Patnaik and Pandian.

Patnaik, on the other hand, seems to have underestimated his enemy’s strength because of his belief in his own invincibility.  His excessive reliance on Pandian also created problems as BJP successfully projected the Tamil Nadu-born 2000 batch IAS officer as an outsider who had hijacked the state administration and turned the chief minister into his captive. This was a recurrent theme in the BJP’s campaign which was amplified by the PM himself. Addressing a rally in Mayurbhanj he raised the issue of Patnaik’s health, implying that the CM’s health-related problems were being kept a secret.

He also played up the issue of the missing keys of 12th century Puri Jagannath temple’s Ratna Bhandar (treasure room). The narrative found resonance with the voters across the state who shifted their loyalty from the BJD to the BJP. While the 2024 elections have demolished the myth of Patnaik’s invincibility it has also exposed some of the strategic mistakes that he made in the run up to the polls. Perhaps the biggest mistake that Parnaik made was to agree to the idea of reviving his party’s alliance with the BJP which had collapsed ahead of 2009 elections. It was seen as a sign of weakness on his part. In hindsight it seems that the talks were actually a ruse which the BJP used to trap the BJD and project it as a nervous rival entering the battle arena.

As the stage gets set for a change of regime in the state and Naveen Patnaik prepares to bow out of office without realizing his dream of winning a sixth straight term which would have made him the longest serving chief minister of the country, top BJP leaders got into a huddle in Bhubaneswar to discuss the modalities of forming a government.

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, the face of BJP in the state, thanked people for giving his party a chance to serve them. Following the party’s humiliating defeat, BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra expressed his gratitude to the people and said his party would continue to work for them. The results also showed that Congress, which got only 9 assembly seats in 2019, had retrieved some of the lost ground in the state. However, the increase in Congress’s vote share came at the cost of BJD and not BJP as was being expected. The people, it seems, also rejected the BJD government’s welfare schemes which had kept it in power for the last 24 years. From the results it is obvious that people of the state were raring for a change which they have finally brought about by voting out the BJD.

All, however, is not lost for Odisha’s most successful regional party which has 51 MLAs now which is a fairly good number for them to constitute a strong opposition in the state assembly along with the Congress which has 14 MLAs. If Naveen Patnaik can lead his bunch of MLAs effectively in the House tour the length and breadth of the state trying to make a fresh connect with the masses he can once again turn his party into a formidable political force. It has a strong cadre base, all it needs is good and courageous leadership.

 

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