Can Naveen Patnaik survive the strong storm of discontent in Odisha?
Despite being the face of the ruling BJD, Patnaik is increasingly staying on the sidelines, making only guest appearances at poll campaigns – a road show here and a rally there. Photo: PTI

Can Naveen Patnaik survive the strong storm of discontent in Odisha?

As Odisha votes for 21 LS and 147 assembly seats, discontent seems to be building up against Naveen Patnaik's dispensation currently headed by his aide VK Pandian

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik looks increasingly fragile. It has been years now that the ageing patriarch ruling the state since 2000 has needed help to climb stairs, hold the microphone, and address crowds.

This election time too has been no different with Patnaik-aide and likely successor V Karthikeyan Pandian holding the mike to allow the chief minister to make his brief speeches rather haltingly. Though the face of his ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the chief minister makes only guest appearances – a road show here and a rally there.

Uncertain future under Pandian

But more worryingly, Patnaik's political future too for once seems as unsteady and wobbly – just as his physical health.

As Odisha votes for simultaneous elections for 21 Lok Sabha and 147 assembly seats being held in four phases ending June 1, a groundswell of discontent seems to be building up rather alarmingly against Patnaik's dispensation currently headed by Pandian.

The rising anger in capital Bhubaneswar, as also in district after district, is predominantly against the present arrangement in the state administration. Patnaik still enjoys goodwill and sympathy. But there is growing consensus that he is no more in charge with the reins of power being firmly in the hands of Pandian and his coterie. That Pandian – a Tamil by birth who came to Odisha only after marrying an IAS colleague – is calling the shots is being generally viewed as an affront to local sensibilities.

Coupled with anti-incumbency accrued over the years, the storm of discontent brewing against the Patnaik government is unmistakably assuming huge proportions.

BJP fans the fire

Opposition parties led by the BJP are fanning the fire. Sensing the mood on the ground, the BJP in particular is carpet bombing the state with star campaigners stoking regional passions against the virtual 'takeover' of the state by outsiders. None other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi has alleged that a mafia is ruling the state and promised to break its backbone once the BJP comes to power in Odisha.

The opposition accusations are finding resonance in a state with very high unemployment, rising retail inflation that tops the country, and a crumbling infrastructure. Odisha's coverage of drinking water supply in rural areas is lower than the national average. The school dropout rate in Class 10 is the highest in the country. Incidence of anaemia among women has shot up.

The list of grievances is long, and the harsh lived experiences of 4.5 crore people in Odisha are finally boiling over. They, together with the popular antipathy for Pandian, have significantly frayed the teflon-coated image of the chief minister.

The unpopularity of Pandian and the various omissions of the administration that he has now come to run are threatening to overpower the popularity that Patnaik has traditionally enjoyed.

BJD – a house in disorder

That all is not right for the ruling BJD is visible. Even the spectacular roadshows and rallies being held by Pandian cannot hide the fast engulfing disquiet on the ground any more.

Even die-hard BJD functionaries and workers at the grassroots are dismayed. They complain on condition of anonymity that a clutch of 'unelected' leaders are controlling the party and long-time workers have lost all their value within the party. Pandian – the former bureaucrat - reportedly relies more on the administrative machinery, so much so that many workers view the collector as the president and the superintendent of the police as the general secretary of the BJD in the districts.

The BJD, of course, is rich in terms of money and machinery at its disposal. But it is evidently poorer this time with the party rank and file dispirited and disillusioned. With Pandian and company 'hijacking' the campaign, the heart of large sections of party workers are simply not in the electioneering any longer.

Women, Patnaik’s only hope

The BJD, however, can still hope to bank on the support of 1.65 crore women voters. Beneficiaries of Patnaik's self-help group scheme that allowed them to earn a decent living by extending to them interest-free loans, many are personally ingratiated to the chief minister. A sizeable section of them – some 60 lakh SHG members – have voted for his BJD in the past. Will they even now?

The BJD is pinning its hopes on the support of 1.65 crore women voters, most of them being beneficiaries of Patnaik's self-help group scheme that allowed them to earn a decent living.

The BJP insists they will not. It is not that that a majority of women will turn against their benefactor and vote against the BJD this time. But the BJP says some women definitely will, and the erosion will be good enough to sink the ruling party.

So, how much does Patnaik's numbers come down by?

Though guessing exact numbers is a risky business, the general consensus is that Patnaik will lose significantly. In Lok Sabha, BJP is likely to win more seats than the BJD. In the Odisha assembly, BJD numbers are set to shrink. Patnaik can only hope that it does not shrink as drastically as to sweep him out of his seat.

Read More
Next Story