Odisha: Political history
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The Patnaik surname has been synonymous with Odisha’s political history. In the 70 years since independence, Odisha politics has been dominated by one Patnaik or another for four decades.
The reign of the Patnaiks began with Biju, followed by Janaki Ballabh of Congress, and then Biju’s son Naveen, the current CM and BJD leader, who has been in the saddle for 19 years.
Taken together, they have held the chief ministership for more than 40 years now — Biju seven years in two terms (1961-1963, 1990-1995), JB nearly 15 years in three terms (1980-1985, 1985-1989 and 1995-1999) and Naveen, 2000 onwards. Eleven other chief ministers have ruled Odisha.
Naveen could, however, be the last from the Biju Patnaik family to enter politics. So far, the 73-year-old has avoided involving any other member of his family in politics. His sister, Gita Mehta, has avoided the public gaze and elder brother Prem Patnaik runs his own business in Delhi-NCR.
But the JB clan, which is not related to the Biju clan and has for long been considered Congress’ first family in Odisha, continues to hold sway despite the party having lost its sheen in the state. Though JB and Biju were political rivals, JB’s son-in-law Soumya Ranjan, a BJD Rajya Sabha member, entered the fray from Khandapada assembly seat on a BJD ticket. Congress had announced the name of JB’s son as an MLA candidate from Begunia, the seat represented by JB twice, but he backed out after showing initial interest.
Soumya’s elder brother Niranjan is Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president and will be contesting from two assembly seats, Ghasipura and Bhandaripokhari this time. Niranjan’s son Nabajyoti will debut from the Balasore Lok Sabha seat as Congress nominee. Niranjan was a minister in JB’s cabinet in all his three terms.
The extended Patnaik family of Soumya and Niranjan have business interest cutting across sectors, from mining to automobile, real estate to media and education and seafood.
The Patnaiks belong to the ‘Karana’ caste, who make up less than 1% of the state’s population but dominate the political landscape in a state that has not been known to vote on caste lines. Odisha’s population includes 22.8% scheduled tribes, 17% scheduled castes and 54% backward castes.
19 years in office (2000-19); looking ahead in 2019
In office since 2000, and with 20 out of Odisha’s 21 Lok Sabha seats in his kitty, four-time chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik is confident of holding his stead one more time, in the face of an emergent BJP.
The state — where assembly and Lok Sabha elections will be held simultaneously — will vote in four phases on April 11, 18, 23 and 29.
To overcome perceived anti-incumbency, Naveen – who was BJP’s ally until 2009 and professes to maintain equidistance from both the saffron party and Congress since parting ways with the former — has focused on his image as a clean politician, his popularity with women voters, welfare schemes such as Kalia (cash assistance for farmers) while highlighting the alleged neglect of Odisha by the Centre.
Many say the 73-year-old bachelor’s image may be squeaky clean, much like the pristine white kurta-pyjama he favours, but that of his government is considerably less so. While Naveen has never been accused of graft in his four terms as chief minister, his government has drawn the opposition’s ire for chit fund and mining scams.
“Naveen’s incorruptible image will be his biggest asset as he seeks a fifth consecutive term. Political rivals have no leader to match his stature,” said Jayant Mohapatra, a retired professor of political science in Berhampur University.
Many also feel Naveen played his trump card hours before the poll dates were announced on Sunday. At a public meeting in Kendrapada, he said Odisha would reserve 33% of its LS seats for women candidates, thus fulfilling his promise to field women in at least seven of the 21 parliamentary seats in Odisha.
Though BJP spokesperson and fellow Odia, Sambit Patra, countered by asking why Naveen was not replicating this in the assembly polls, the unprecedented initiative is likely to endear the CM to his core vote bank of women. In 2012, he had increased the seats reserved for women in panchayati raj institutions to 50% from the 33% introduced by his father, the late Biju Patnaik, in the 90s. Women self-help groups, which get subsidised loans from the government, are key to Naveen’s continued run as CM.
Another strategy Patnaik has adopted is to replace several sitting MLAs and MPs to beat localised anti-incumbency. The regional party has 118 MLAs in the outgoing assembly of 147. “At least 15 MP candidates and 50 MLA candidates will be replaced,” a BJD insider said.
In the past month, Naveen has toured all 21 Lok Sabha segments multiple times and addressed several public meetings. A man of few words, he tends to keep his speeches short; even so, he has coined a catchphrase to draw claps and cheers – ‘aapana maane khusi ta? Mu bi khusi’ (Are you happy? I am also happy). The question has become the rage in villages and towns of the state.
Naveen also does his meetings with a twist: his ministers and senior party leaders sit among the audience and are not allowed to speak. Instead, little-known women, farmers and youths share the stage with the chief minister, take selfies with him and deliver speeches. “This has endeared Naveen to the people, they can identify with his simplicity. He listens to the people more than he speaks to them,” said senior BJD leader and Rajya Sabha member Prasanna Acharya.
The strategy seems to be working. Laxmipriya Sha, a woman farmer from Balangir who shared the dais with Naveen at a public meeting in Bargarh district, said, “I don’t know of any farmer in my village who has shared the stage with the CM and been allowed to speak. It is an honour for the farmer community.”
BJP and Congress — faced with the Naveen juggernaut — are hoping the people are in the mood for change. “ E veryone is comparing 19 years of Naveen in Odisha with just five years of Modi at the Centre,” BJP state vice-president Sameer Mohanty said.
“People see new hope in Congress as we have promised complete farm loan waiver, better support price for paddy (Rs 2,600 per quintal up from the current Rs 1,750) and guaranteed monthly income,” said Odisha state Congress president