25 years of BJD: What makes Naveen Patnaik tick like no other
One afternoon, a few months after the death of the legendary Janata Dal (JD) leader Biju Patnaik in 1997, four of his associates met at the guest house of the Paradip port. During the discussion, they mooted the idea of a regional outfit, which would carry on the Biju legacy and fight against the Centre’s negligence towards Odisha.
However, when the idea was shared with the rest of their colleagues, the response was mixed. Many agreed to it, some rejected it, while, a few thought of other options-joining other parties.
“After a series of meetings, a cycle rally was held from the historic Inchudi (in Balasore district) to Bhubaneswar, and that day the foundation of the division of the Janata Dal was formally laid,” recalled senior Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo who was then in the JD. Kanungo was one among the four at the Paradip meeting.
Biju’s political plunge
Meanwhile, after initial reluctance, Biju’s younger son, Naveen Patnaik, who, till then had spent his time outside of the state, had relented, contested and won from his father’s Aska Lok Sabha seat.
Finally, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), named after Biju, was born on December 26, 1997, with Naveen at the helm.
On Monday (December 26), the BJD is celebrating the silver jubilee of its foundation day in a grand manner in Puri. It could not celebrate the foundation day function last year due to COVID.
Starting from its first tryst with state electoral politics in 2000, the ruling BJD has won every election. In the process, it’s thwarted the aspirations of the principal opposition party-BJP, while the Congress’ position has moved from bad to worse. In the face of Naveen’s ever-swelling popularity, even the Narendra Modi/BJP wave of 2014 had little impact in Odisha.
In the panchayat polls held earlier this year, the BJD secured a vote share of 52.73 per cent, the highest in its electoral history. While the BJP managed to garner 30.07 per cent of the votes, the Congress bagged 13.57 per cent. Going by its current strength, the BJD is tipped to win the 2024 elections as well.
‘BJD, well-oiled machinery’
“The BJD is a deeply entrenched party, with an enviably, well-oiled election-ready machinery. It’s mastered the art of winning elections; not many political parties can match the BJD in this,” according to the editor of a leading Odia daily.
In the words of senior BJD leader Amar Prasad Satpathy, the formation of the BJD was a historical necessity. “The demands and aspirations of the people wouldn’t have been fulfilled by any national party,” Satpathy told The Federal.
He claims that the BJD has worked continuously to fulfil the aspirations of the people and has been successful in this. “People of the state have blessed the BJD in every election, their overwhelming support is proof of their faith in Naveen Patnaik and the party,” said Satpathy.
In 2000, Naveen knew little about the state and its politics. Neither could he read or speak Odia, the language of the people. He’s not known as a good public speaker, and unlike his father, who loved to be in the midst of people, Naveen’s averse to crowds.
Those who knew him from close quarters, recall his interest and knowledge in subjects like history (British and European) and also architecture.
“As a person, he’s extremely well mannered and civilized in contrast to the public perception of an average Indian politician,” said former Odisha chief secretary Jugal Kishor Mohapatra, who also served as the secretary to the CM from 2000-2004.
Though he was an unknown quantity, what attracted the people the most was Naveen’s USP-simple lifestyle, personal integrity and stellar virtues.
“Full of warmth, and vitality, and cordial to his colleagues and the staff, Naveen Babu’s fun-loving as well,” recounted Baishnab Charan Mohanty, Naveen’s PRO for 12 years. “From the beginning, he’s been very conscious of his image, and his public relation (media management) has been of high order,” adds Mohanty, who also served as PRO during Biju’s last stint as CM (1990-95).
Challenges galore early
Incidentally, Naveen took over the reins of the state at a critical juncture, there were enormous challenges. The state had just been battered by the late October 1999 super cyclone which left 10,000 dead and rendered millions homeless.
Kanungo was the finance minister (2000-2002) in Naveen’s first cabinet. He says the Vajpayee government’s generous support post the cyclone, adoption of several fiscal prudence measures and then the mining (iron ore) boon led to a turnaround.
Considering that Odisha’s prone to natural disasters (cyclone, floods and drought) thrust was given to the creation of a robust disaster preparedness and management mechanism. Odisha emerged as the best disaster-prepared state, its disaster management model not only saved precious lives and property in subsequent cyclones and floods, it received global appreciation, as well.
From 2000 to 2009, the BJD-BJP alliance government ruled the state.
During this phase, Naveen introduced a slew of pro-people programmes and ensured their efficient delivery. The people felt the difference as Naveen’s BJD consolidated the non-Congress votes and strengthened its base. Even his critics credit Naveen for bringing about a visible change, both in terms of economic and social.
Naveen was also ruthless, particularly against the corrupt and dropped senior ministers even on the basis of corruption allegations.
Narrating the incident of a day in which Naveen dismissed three senior ministers, Mohanty recalls that, in the evening, these ministers were in their respective offices, and had switched on the evening Odia bulletin on Doordarshan. Some of them had even enjoyed a fresh lime drink at Naveen Niwas, early in the morning.
However, the headlines of the bulletin stunned all. It announced the ouster of the three. “He (Naveen) did it so swiftly that not even a single bird chirped,” laughed Mohanty.
The action, caused havoc among the party’s leaders, but it sky-rocketed Naveen’s popularity, his stance and courage were talked about everywhere. He was the Mr Clean of Odisha politics who could do no wrong. Naveen repeated the exercise at regular intervals. The erring politicians and officials were also taken to task.
Dumping BJP and going alone
The defeat of the NDA in 2004 and the beginning of the UPA’s rule at the centre had its effects on state politics as well. Post-2008 Kandhamal riots, realizing that the BJP’s popularity had further dipped, Naveen severed ties with the saffron party. The BJD went to the 2009 polls, alone and won. Naveen maintained that the BJD would maintain equidistance from both the BJP and Congress.
“The 2009 victory was a turning point for the BJD, it made the cadres confident that the party could win comfortably of its own. In each successive poll, the BJD has performed better,” says senior journalist Akshaya Kumar Sahoo.
According to Satpathy, the BJD has tried continuously to meet the aspirations of the people, and a huge positive change has been a reality across the sectors – healthcare, education (transformation of schools), infrastructure, social justice, women empowerment, industrialization, sports promotion, development of Odisha’s cultural heritage etc. “The CM has successfully carried his father’s legacy,” he said.
‘BJD lacks vision’
However, critics differ.
They say Naveen is willing to compromise with the basics of good governance.
“In 2009, he gave the impression that it was difficult for him to accept the communal politics of the saffron party. But, post-2014, his party supported the National Democratic Alliance government in the passage of controversial legislations like the CAA, repeal of Article 370 in J&K etc,” they argue.
Though several large scams have surfaced in the state, Naveen’s image has remained unscathed. In the chitfund scam, many of the leaders of his party were named and some went to jail. Surprisingly, many of their sons and relatives were given tickets by the BJD in the 2019 polls.
“Naveen has a sharp political mind. He has kept union governments in good humour to his own political advantage,” adds Sahoo.
Opponents feel that the BJD lacks an ideology or vision; its only objective is to win elections, and for Naveen, power is everything. They say Naveen is over-reliant on the bureaucrats.
Both BJP and Congress leaders allege that under Naveen, even though the party is run by bureaucrats, elected leaders have no say in it. Naveen’s style and core priorities have been saved by his closest aides.
Satpathy, though, counters the allegations, “Let the critics say what they want. Unlike other parties, the BJD’s motto is to serve the people of the state, not rule them. Our government always delivers what it promises, and the people are the best judge.”