Campaign Gets Murkier As Contestants Up The Ante

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It’s a no-holds-barred battle in Odisha with Prime Minister Narendra Modi going all out against his main rival, the Biju Janata Dal and not hesitating to launch even personal attacks on his friend-turned-foe chief minister Naveen Patnaik. His barbs have forced the chief minister to retaliate. Things are likely to heat up further as the campaign progresses

The battle for Odisha is getting fiercer and murkier campaigning peaks in the state. It is turning out to be a no-holds-barred battle with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself leading the charge against Biju Janata Dal (BJD), his party’s main rival in the state.

The Prime Minister, who is obviously hoping that BJP would do better in Odisha and compensate for the losses his party might suffer in some other states, has now no hesitation about launching direct and personal attacks on his friend-turned-foe chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The ferocity of the Prime Minister’s attack on him is making the usually quiet chief minister respond to the barbs being aimed at him for the first time. That is making this campaign highly recriminatory in nature.

It was Modi who launched the first salvo at his rival while addressing his maiden election rally at Berhampur on May 6. Without taking names he taunted the chief minister for his poor knowledge of Odia and the culture of the state.  On May 11 he stepped up his attack on Patnaik while addressing a series of rallies in Kandhamal, Bolangir and Bargarh Lok Sabha constituencies.

“Naveen Babu is the chief minister of Odisha for so many years. I want to challenge Naveen Babu. Why are people upset with you? This is because you make him (Naveen Patnaik) stand anywhere and tell him to spell out the names of districts and their headquarters without the aid of a written paper and he won’t be able to do that. How can a chief minister, who cannot tell names of the districts and their headquarters, be expected to understand your plight?,” asked Modi, doing away with the niceties which once marked his  relationship with Odisha chief minister who is among the few regional party bosses in the country to have supported the BJP-led NDA on several important occasions.

Modi went a step further at his Bolangir rally openly mocking the chief minister and inviting people to ask Patnaik to name 10 villages in the Kantabanji assembly constituency from where he has also filed his nomination papers this time along with his traditional Hinjili seat in Ganjam. Kantabanji assembly segment is part of Bolangir Lok Sabha constituency and Patnaik has chosen to contest the seat in an obvious bid to contain the influence of BJP in western Odisha where the saffron party had won all the five Lok Sabha seats in 2019.

At Bargarh the Prime Minister targeted Patnaik’s Man Friday, bureaucrat-turned-politician VK Pandian who is widely believed to be BJD’s chief strategist in these elections which have become a matter of life and death for both the parties.  Taking a dig at Pandian, Modi said, “Do you know the entire government in Odisha has been outsourced? There is a super CM who is above the democratically-elected government and the chief minister. Do you want the state to go into the hands of those who have no understanding of Odisha?” as he called upon people to vote for his party.

Addressing these rallies, he also brought up the issue of the missing keys of the Ratna Bhandar (treasure trove) of the 12th century Puri Jagannath temple. This was an attempt to strike an emotional chord with the people while attacking the Patnaik government. He, however, made no mention of the much talked-about Puri heritage corridor, a major contribution made by Patnaik towards the development of the temple and the holy city of Puri.

The chief minister, who usually refuses to be provoked by such statements from political opponents, responded to Modi’s charges by questioning the latter’s commitment to the development of Odisha, its language and culture. In a statement released in the form of a video clip he tore into the Prime Minister accusing him not paying any attention to his (Patnaik’s) request for support for the growth of Odia language and Odissi, the state’s most celebrated musical style. “Honourable Prime Minister, how much do you remember about Odisha? Even though Odia is a classical language, you forgot about it. You have allotted Rs 1,000 crore to Sanskrit but zero to Odia”, the chief minister said in the video. He also took a dig at Modi for even forgetting about Odissi music though the state had sent him proposals for the recognition of this classical form of music.

He also refuted Modi’s charge about Odisha not being able to develop despite having vast natural resources. “Odisha’s natural wealth is coal. You (Centre) take coal from Odisha. But you forgot to hike the royalty on coal in the last 10 years,” said Patnaik in his video statement.

The Prime Minister, it seems, is taking a calculated risk by targeting his former ally in such a brazen manner. He must be aware that by doing this he is actually burning the bridges he had assiduously built with regional satraps like Patnaik over the years. It was Patnaik’s BJD which bailed out the BJP-led NDA inside the parliament when the going got tough for it in the Upper House on issues like scrapping of article 370, triple talaq and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

Patnaik, in fact, had taken a big risk by supporting the Modi government on such contentious issues which could alienate the minorities and affect its vote base in the state. His party had also extended support to NDA’s presidential candidates and also backed the candidature of Harivansh Narayan Singh for the post of Rajya Sabha deputy chairperson in 2020. Patnaik sent BJP leader and railway minister Ashwini Vaishnaw to the Rajya Sabha twice with the support of his party.

The Prime Minister and his party have gained the most from this friendly understanding with the Patnaik’s party in Odisha which accounts for 21 Lok Sabha seats of which the BJP currently holds 8 and BJD 12. Another seat is with the Congress. As things stand today the BJP, even if it throws everything into the campaign in Odisha, cannot hope to get more than a dozen Lok Sabha seats.  In the 147-strong state assembly the best possible scenario for the party could be a two-fold increase in its present seat tally of 23 but it seems nowhere near forming a government in the state. This hardly justifies Prime Minister’s relentless attacks on a party which has supported him on contentious issues in the past.

This, in fact, could have a negative impact on the BJP as top leaders of the party appear to be hitting the chief minister below the belt. These leaders forget that similar efforts were made by Patnaik’s opponents in the past elections but they boomeranged. They sought to project him as someone who cannot speak Odia fluently and does not understand the state’s culture but people rejected the propaganda and voted for him on the basis of his performance.  The same factor is likely to work in his favour yet again.

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