Odisha Sun Times Political Bureau
Bhubaneswar, Apr 26 :
Naveen Patnaik’s 9-day Delhi trip has brought some cheer to the hapless, gun-toting uniformed men who guard his fortress Naveen Niwas 24/7.
For a change, you can find smiles on their faces and hear them exchange pleasantries while they huddle under the trees around the hallowed residence of the BJD supremo, to beat the sweltering April heat.
The same, however, cannot be said of Naveen’s political colleagues who are, to put it mildly, suffering from what is described as political hypertension. It is not as if they miss their leader. No, not at all. On the contrary, they too share the glee of his security men and in fact some of them wish he stays put in Delhi for another two weeks.
So, what is bothering these leaders ?
They are worried, for sure, about their fate which is sealed in EVMs that neither the poll pundits nor astrologers are able to crack. But what is bothering them even more is: what would happens if -as many are suggesting- the BJD falls below the 80 mark in the Assembly ?
On Friday the Odisha BJP chief KV Singhdeo dropped a bombshell when he said his party will be in a position to form the government with support from ‘outside’ even it wins 45 to 55 seats, it.
He even went to the extent of saying some BJD leaders are in touch with him !
It is not clear if it was merely a kite-flying move by the BJP leader or there is some substance to it. But going by the kind of speculations that the political market is rife with today, and public perceptions about the possibility of BJD losing a major chunk of its support base, the idea of a government sans Naveen sounds pretty plausible
Whether it happens or not, the fact that a cross section of people in Odisha are now openly discussing and speculating on the possibility of a non-Naveen government, is enough evidence of the changed public perceptions about the so-called invincible leader.
For once, people are willing to accept the possibility that the 14-year old BJD government stands the risk of being toppled.
” That itself is good enough to suggest Naveen Patnaik has lost the battle ahead and irrespective of the results,” says a senior BJP leader.
It is this public perception that should be worrying Naveen Patnaik no end, because the secret of his success all these years has been a carefully cultivated ‘image’ which has remained more or less in tact at least until 2013. But it appears that most people are now willing to believe that he had something to do with humungous mining scam and that he has been shielding and protecting tainted leaders and even rank corrupt individuals.
Within his own party, there is a growing feeling that by his complete dependence on the Babus, Naveen Patnaik has subjected his political colleagues including ministers, MLAs and MPs to undue humiliation and loss of face in the eyes of the public.
He is also being accused of substituting the Cabinet with his kitchen cabinet of Babus and rendering the Assembly a redundant institution while allowing the Secretariat to usurp all the powers, including the job of legislation.
A senior BJD leaders says – off the record – “Once Naveen Patnaik fails to come up with a big win, his authority over the party will be eroded beyond repair and he can no longer treat his colleagues like dirt”.
“We have been tolerating a whole lot of nonsense and humiliation at the hands of babus all these years for the simple reason that they are Naveen’s blue eyed boys. People do not risk incurring his displeasure or questioning him on any issue because that would mean the end of their political career. But if he fails to win at least 90-95 seats this time, he will see the other side of us,” said a senior minister under conditions of anonymity.
The ruling party is now being haunted by the spectre of a possible vertical split -which many see as a distinct possibility- if the BJD ends up with a thin majority and the BJP gets around 40 seats.
“The equations can change dramatically because there are many in the party who genuinely want to see the back of Naveen Babu,” says a disgruntled BJD leader.
The public craze for Naveen Patnaik has dwindled over the years, say observers. He is no longer the charismatic leader he was, until a couple of years ago. His body language does not any longer exude the confidence that one associates with an ascendant or confident leader.
The ticket distribution exercise also showed he was not in complete command and also that he was afraid to take on the tainted and discredited MLAs.
“Those who were denied tickets, ultimately, were the ones who had ‘the least nuisance value’ “, says a senior leader of the party.
Naveen’s image suffered the maximum damage during the last poll campaign and the man who did it all was none other than Narendra Bhai Modi who punctured big holes into it.
The BJP prime ministerial candidate made Odisha’s tall leader Naveen Patnaik shrink in size everytime he visited the state. People started comparing the Odisha chief minister with his Gujarat counterpart in terms of the style and impact of their campaigns. The differences were too glaring and conclusions too obvious to be mentioned.
Although the so-called Modi wave was geared towards winning more Lok Sabha seats for the saffron party, there has been an undeniable rub-off effect on the overall mood of the voters across the state. Although that may not help the BJP reap benefits in the Assembly polls, it has surely pushed the ruling party on the backfoot and driven a sense of fear among its leaders.
For the first time in 15 years, there is a feeling- right or wrong – among Naveen’s ardent supporters that their leader may not deliver the promised results in 2014. BJD leaders too, on their part, have started downgrading their earlier estimate of seats and from 110-120 seats a week ago, it now down to 85.
Whatever be the poll results, Naveen Patnaik has certainly lost out on his image, say observers.
The image of a leader is mostly manufactured by the media and sustained through the word-of-mouth publicity by his band of followers.
But the hard truth is, image is just like any other commodity that sells as long as people are willing to buy it.
In Naveen Patnaik’s case, his ‘image’- of a ‘squeaky clean politician’, ‘messiah of the poor’, ’emancipator of women’ and ‘leader without any alternative’ rolled into one – had done pretty good business over the last 12 years or so. But suddenly, during the run-up to the polls he ran into big trouble.
Now people are discovering the chinks in Naveen’s armour and he does not appear any longer to them as an invincible leader who is destined to rule the state as long as he lives.
Nevertheless some BJD leaders are confident about forming the government, “come what may”.
“Even if it is a truncated legislature party, we will be able to form the government for the fourth successive term,” says a hardcore Naveen loyalist.
“ It should be at least 85, or may be a little more and that is a comfortable majority, don’t you think so ? It may go up, after people from other parties or Independents join our ranks”, he says.
The leader may not be off the mark . One has seen that happening too often over the last 14 years when the Jai-Naveen virus had indeed assumed epidemic proportions- as in the case of the last statewide urban polls.
“The exodus from the Congress may not have stopped with the polls, for all you know. If Naven has serious problems in the numbers game, the easiest party to poach on, is the rump called the Congress. Many of them would not like to stick to a party led by lightweights of little worth imposed on them from above ,” said a political observer.
There is also a possibility, says another senior observer, pushed to a corner Naveen would not mind stitching an alliance with either the BJP or the Congress because staying in power is all that matters in politics.
Tailpiece : A retired politician in his 80s had this to say : If you think politics is an easy game to play or predict, you have had it.