Why Naveen Patnaik’s newfound anti-Modi role totally lacks conviction
Former Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's sudden attempt to chart an anti-Modi course after losing power lacks conviction due to its long closet alliance with the BJP. File photo

Why Naveen Patnaik’s newfound anti-Modi role totally lacks conviction

BJD's somersault — from BJP enabler to opposer — reeks of political cynicism; its opposition is a matter of convenience rather than the result of any conviction

Parliament presented a rather uncommon sight last week when, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech, nine MPs of Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD) joined the Opposition to stage a noisy walkout from the Rajya Sabha.

It marked a huge departure from the wink-wink closet alliance that the BJD had with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — its principal rival in Odisha — till recently.

Hot and cold

The BJD was bankrolled by the BJP when it was founded in 1997. The BJD has had a long and chequered association with the BJP.

For the first nine years of the BJD's 24-year regime that ended last month, the two ruled Odisha in an alliance.

When they broke up, they officially became political rivals. But over the past few years — particularly since 2019 — the two have seemed to be more of friends than enemies.

Although the BJP was the main Opposition in the state, the BJD supported the BJP on many occasions and voted in its favour in Parliament when it came to issues such as the no-confidence motion against Modi or the Delhi Services Bill that left the AAP government seriously emasculated.

Not BJP's B-team?

Last month's election drubbing that unseated Patnaik seems to have finally brought the BJD back to its senses.

Having played a subservient role to the BJP and greatly compromised its own identity as an independent regional party, the BJD is now attempting to shed its notoriety as a BJP B-team.

But it is not going to be an easy task. The BJD's somersault — from a BJP enabler to a party opposed to it — reeks of political cynicism. Its opposition is a matter of convenience rather than the result of any conviction. And it is very doubtful that the people of Odisha will be convinced by its acrobatic feat — at least in the short term.

Uncertain future

Why Patnaik decided to ditch the BJP and hitch a ride with the Opposition is understandable. Already 77 years old and not in the best of health, Patnaik, Odisha's longest-serving chief minister ever, faces a very uncertain political future.

The next elections are due only in 2029, when Patnaik will be 82. That an octogenarian Patnaik will stage a political comeback looks unlikely.

The future looks equally uncertain for his party. Out of power and without a second rung of leadership (Patnaik has ensured no challenger grows within the party), the BJD faces both a leadership and identity crisis. No one is sure what happens and who would lead in a post-Patnaik scenario.

The BJD's hobnobbing with the BJP — it helped Union minister Ashwini Vaishnaw get re-elected to the Rajya Sabha a couple of months ago when the BJP did not have the requisite numbers in the state Assembly — has progressively dented its image.

Its inexplicable support for the BJP has strengthened a public perception that the BJD bats for petty political gains and not any principles.

Staying relevant

Joining the Opposition camp and staging noisy walkouts are possibly last-ditch attempts by the BJD to save itself from slipping further towards irrelevance.

Now that the BJP has wrested power in Odisha, Patnaik and his BJD would attempt to stay relevant by cementing their credentials as a true Opposition. The BJD may also seek to stitch together an alliance with the Congress — the third player in the state — in the near future for consolidating the Opposition space.

Down and out that he is, it will be an uphill journey for Patnaik. His primary challenge would be to keep his flock together in the face of potential poaching attempts by the BJP.

And how he addresses growing apprehensions in the party about who would lead the BJD in five or 10 years from now should also test his skills.

Friend or foe?

A misstep could be disastrous, just as Patnaik's earlier attempt to foist VK Pandian, his erstwhile IAS secretary, as his potential heir bombed. Another mistake could hasten a split within the BJD.

But Patnaik's biggest task would be to hardsell to the people his BJD's change of heart about the BJP.

Having attempted and failed to enter into a formal alliance with the BJP ahead of the elections just a few months ago, the BJD'S noisy walkout in Parliament has a ring of hollowness to it.

That Patnaik's party suffers from a lack of credibility is all too loud and clear.

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