AS THE ROLE of V K Pandian as Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s No. 2 gets formalised with his expected induction into the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the BJP may return to the drawing board in the state.
The BJD has few parallels, even among regional parties, when it comes to dominating politics of a state. The BJP has had to work its way around this, first as an ally of Patnaik and, after he parted ways, as a fair weather opponent.
In the last Assembly elections, the Patnaik-led BJD that has been in power now for 23 years, won 112 of the 147 seats; the BJP was a distant second at 23. Even in the simultaneous Lok Sabha polls, Odisha didn’t bow to the pro-Narendra Modi trend, and preferred the BJD on 12 of 21 seats, with 8 going to the BJP.
The BJD and BJP’s growing rivalry in Odisha, at the cost of the Congress, notwithstanding, Patnaik has ensured friendly relations with both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP government at the Centre. This has been a cause for some heartburn in the Odisha BJP, which drew comfort from the hope that post-Patnaik, the BJD might prove easy pickings.
It is here that the entry of Pandian has upset its applecart. Since Patnaik’s trusted private secretary shed his backroom role and assumed responsibilities that he had long been known to run unofficially, more and more powers have flowed to the 48-year-old.
Voices that he is Patnaik’s chosen one to take over the reins of the BJD are now growing.
But if the BJP’s hopes of a quick dissolution of the BJD, which revolves around Patnaik and has no second-rung leadership, have now faded, there is another section that believes Pandian’s rise will trigger its own set of issues. Sources said that a large section of the party is uneasy over the meteoric rise of the former bureaucrat. Several young BJD leaders, such as Arun Sahoo, Atanu Sabyasachi, P K Balabantaray and Sanjay Das Burma, for example, were earlier talked of as rising stars.
However, as a leader points out, they seem to have acquiesced to Patnaik so far. “With no dent in Patnaik’s popularity, the leaders have accepted his decision. Also, Pandian’s elevation has been on the cards for at least five years now. So, it is not a shock. And while there is no love for Pandian, there is no particular distaste either,” said the source.
State BJP leaders fear that for them, this might mean a longer wait, with many now running out of patience. That stalemate is felt to be more on account of the central BJP, which is not ready to sour its ties with Patnaik and which has used the BJD’s help to get crucial Bills passed in the Rajya Sabha.
A senior BJP leader said: “The people of Odisha want to vote for the BJP, but our party leadership is not interested.”
This feeling of the BJP being stuck in the middle means its leaders have not caught the popular imagination, nor has it attracted good faces from other parties. “The BJP leadership is unreliable in Odisha. No leader feels confident of joining as they are not sure of their position if they join the BJP,” a former BJD MP said, adding that any such moves that might happen would be seen closer to polls.
Pandian’s entry has another aspect. Allowed by the Centre to take voluntary retirement from the IAS well in time for next year’s polls, Pandian is known to have strong ties within the BJP as well, a leader pointed out.
Closer to elections though, the soft approach on both sides may be dropped. One prominent face expected to cross over to the BJP soon, for example, is Pradip Panigrahi, one of Patnaik’s former lieutenants who was expelled from the BJD for alleged anti-people activities.
The BJD too will take a harder line given that it would want to win as many seats in the Lok Sabha as possible to retain its bargaining power in national politics, sources in the party said. With the BJP expected to not return as dominant in 2024 as it did after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, a strong regional party can hold more cards going forward.
“If the Central government is weak in the numbers game in Parliament, its always good to have a decent strength, for the party and the state. Why would the BJD put this at stake?” a BJD leader said.