Gloves are off in the battle between BJP and BJD

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Surprisingly, Modi’s attack on Patnaik delved into personal level. He made fun of Patnaik’s unease in writing and speaking Odia and asked Patnaik to name 10 villages of Kantabanji Assembly constituency and also all districts of Odisha without looking at a piece of paper.

On 23 April 2019, in the midst of campaigning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Kendrapara. “Vidayee tay hai,” he said, as the crowd cheered. What he meant to say was that the state government headed by the Biju Janata Dal had failed miserably on all fronts and it was time for the regional party to go.

Well, despite a high decibel and belligerent campaign by the Bharatiya Janata Party, the BJD came back to power for the fifth time. The BJD won 113 out of a total of 147 seats in the Odisha Assembly while the BJP managed to get just 23 Assembly seats. However, a strong Pulwama-Balakote narrative helped the BJP bag eight of the total 21 Lok Sabha seats, an increase of seven seats from 2014. The national party also became the main opposition party in the Odisha Assembly pushing the Congress to the third position.

Few months after the elections, however, the top leaders of both the parties developed a unique camaraderie, even as their workers at the grassroots continued with their bitter struggle. The first sign of this camaraderie came to the fore when Union railway minister and former IAS officer Ashwini Vaishnaw was to Rajya Sabha from Odisha as a joint BJP-BJD candidate.

In the next five years, the BJD supported all important bills moved by the BJP in Parliament. It hardly criticised the BJP on issues of national importance. Even though both the parties had officially severed their ties in 2009, their top leadership worked in tandem most of the time, much to the embarrassment of the BJP’s state leadership.

In March this year, Modi heaped praises on Patnaik at a meeting in Chandikhol in Jajpur. He described Patnaik as the “popular chief minister” of Odisha. Such a close relationship lent credence to the speculations that the BJD and BJP might join together before the 2024 elections. The possibility of such an alliance, in fact, had potential to strengthen the BJP led National Democratic Alliance and was in tune with Modi’s target for 400 plus Lok Sabha seats. After a few weeks’ high voltage drama, the alliance talk evaporated and both the parties had to fight the elections separately.

On his first visit to Odisha on 6 May to campaign for the BJP’s MP and MLA candidates under Berhampur and Nabarangpur Lok Sabha constituencies, Modi spoke about the “BJP’s government formation” in the state and “invited” people to the “swearing in ceremony” at Bhubaneswar on 10 June. Modi’s speech lacked teeth and seemed like he still had the hangover of the bonhomie he shared with Patnaik. On the other hand, Patnaik mildly responded to it saying that the “BJP was daydreaming”.

Clearly, the leaders’ friendly exchange did not excite the workers of the respective parties who expected a frontal attack on each other during the elections. Probably, Modi got the message from the ground and on his next campaign trail on 11 May, his mood was belligerent. While addressing rallies in Phulbani, Bargarh and Balangir, he blasted the state government for inaction and attacked Patnaik personally.

Modi said that though Patnaik had ruled Odisha for more than 24 years, he had failed to develop the state and pushed a majority of people into poverty. He alleged that a “super chief minister” (Patnaik’s aide and former IAS officer VK Pandian) was now ruling the state while the government had been “outsourced” completely. As a result, he said, Odisha’s tradition, culture and pride had been destroyed. He assured that an “Odia speaking son of the soil” would become the chief minister if the BJP is voted to power in the state. “The BJD government must be kicked out,” he said.

Surprisingly, Modi’s attack on Patnaik delved into personal level. He made fun of Patnaik’s unease in writing and speaking Odia and asked Patnaik to name 10 villages of Kantabanji Assembly constituency and also all districts of Odisha without looking at a piece of paper. Besides his traditional seat of Hinjili in Ganjam, Patnaik is also contesting from Kantabanji in Balangir in western Odisha.

It did not take too long for Patnaik to respond to Modi’s charges. In a three-minute long video Patnaik said that Modi’s love for Odisha was “fake”. He said that the Prime Minister had only made “false” promises to the people of the state. Referring to Modi’s accusation of Odia culture being destroyed, Patnaik said that the former had ignored Odia language even after it was accorded the status of a classical language. “You granted Rs.1,000 for Sanskrit but nothing for Odia,” Patnaik said.

Patnaik alleged that he also sent proposals to Modi to accord classical status to Odissi music on two occasions but Modi rejected them both the times. He added that the Prime Minister did not find any of the Odia greats worthy of the Bharat Ratna, though he invoked their names in election speeches.

Patnaik also accused Modi of hitting Odisha economically. The Prime Minister, he said, did not increase the royalty for the state’s coal, double the minimum support price of paddy for the state’s farmers and built the promised coastal highway. Reducing the prices of petrol, diesel and LPGs, waiving of GST, and providing two crore jobs to the youth are among the other failed promises made by Modi, Patnaik said, adding that the BJP should forget about the supposed swearing in ceremony on 10 June and not dream of coming to power in Odisha for the next 10 years.

Now that the gloves are off one expects an intense fight between the two erstwhile coalition partners who shared power in the state for nine years between 2000 and 2009. While Modi is scheduled to visit the state at least twice to address rallies, the BJD is preparing itself for a big fight.

The BJP has consistently improved its vote share and power in the state and the BJD may take it lightly at its own cost.

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