Reported by Sandeep Sahu
Bhubaneswar, May 23:
The swearing in of the new Odisha council of ministers has thrown into public domain the one question that was being asked in hushed tones till the other day: is it the end of the road for the BJD old guard?
The composition of the Naveen Patnaik council of ministers at the start of his fourth successive innings certainly suggests so. Old warhorse Dr Damodar Rout is the only member of the BJD veteran’s club – also called the 70 plus club – to find a place in Naveen Patnaik’s new council of ministers.
Even as Naveen appointed Dr Rout, he left no one in any doubt about where the party seniors figure in his scheme of things for the future. The man, who in the past has handled important portfolios like Panchayati Raj, Agriculture and Health, has been given Cooperation and Excise – hardly befitting a leader of his standing and seniority.
The minister had got an inkling that he would be given an insignificant portfolio, a close confidante of the minister confided to this correspondent a day before the swearing in.
More than Dama’s downsizing, however, it was the exclusion of another veteran, Surya Narayan Patro, which gave a clearer indication that the BJD supremo is now looking to remove the ‘deadwood’ and usher in a generational change in the party.
If performance was the criterion, Patro should have been the first person to get a berth in the cabinet because he did the donkey’s work for something that Naveen Patnaik got all the credit for the handling of Cyclone Phailin in October last year.
The former Revenue minister who had caused terrible embarrassment to himself, his party and his leader with his ‘proud to be Naveen’s servant’ comment could not have imagined even in his wildest dreams that he would be rewarded for his performance with what effectively amounts to a ‘sack’.
Like Surya Narayan Patro, Maheswar Mohanty too is unable to come to terms with the Chief Minister’s decision not to take him in the cabinet. The two were so peeved with their ‘sacking’ from the cabinet that they did not even bother attending the swearing in ceremony – for appearance’s sake, if nothing else.
Mohanty actually went a step ahead and made his anger known in no uncertain terms by choosing not to accompany the party supremo when the latter went to the Jagannath temple to seek the Lord’s blessings hours before the ceremony – something unthinkable in the time honoured tradition of the party. But these overt expressions of displeasure was the most the two could aspire to show in the sycophantic ambience that permeates the ruling party.
Elements of the strategy to systematically sideline the veterans have been in evidence for quite some time now. Some would say the process began back in 2009 when veteran Surendra Nath Nayak was denied the party ticket. But the process has gathered momentum only in the last one year or so.
The first major step towards the sidelining of the old guard came when the senior most among them, Prafulla Ghadai, who had set a record of sorts by remaining Finance minister – and virtual No 2 in the cabinet – for nine long years, was unceremoniously dropped from the cabinet altogether during a reshuffle a little over a year ago.
As if to prove to that the dropping of Ghadai was not part of the routine ministerial reshuffle, Naveen followed it up by denying a ticket to the veteran from Jajpur altogether. In a move that was bound to raise eyebrows, he shifted Ghadai’s son Priti Ranjan from Korei, which he represented in the last Assembly, and fielded him from Sukinda, the constituency represented by his father for six successive terms.
The other BJD veteran to lose out on the ticket sweepstakes was Kalindi Behera. In a repeat of the experiment on the Ghadai father and son duo, the senior Behera was denied a ticket from the Cuttack Sadar constituency, which he represented in the last Assembly, and his son Chandra Sarathi shunted out from Salepur to be fielded from his father’s constituency.
Party insiders say this was a strategy to ensure that Ghadai and Behera don’t continue calling the shots in their respective areas of influence through their sons. If the Ghadai and Behera juniors won their new seats, it was not because of Naveen, but in spite of him.
The next on the hit list was a man widely believed to be Naveen’s childhood buddy: Ananga Uday Singhdeo.
In a move that defied all logic, the MLA from Bolangir, who had been elected a member of the Rajya Sabha just weeks ago, was fielded from his traditional seat after vociferous protest by other aspirants, primarily former State Commission for Women (SCW) chairperson Jyoti Panigrahi, against the decision to field Singhdeo’s ‘manager’ Harekrushna Satpathy from there. [Some in the BJD whisper that Panigrahi was encouraged by the party leadership to pave the way for Singhdeo to contest – and lose – the election!]
Equally intriguing was Naveen’s unwarranted declaration, while announcing the decision about the replacement of Satpathy with Singhdeo himself, that the scion of the Bolangir royal family would resign from the Rajya Sabha ‘soon’.
Considering that he did not feel the need for such a declaration in the case of hockey great Dillip Tirkey, who had been fielded in the Lok Sabha despite being a Rajya Sabha member, or in the case of the party leader in the Rajya Sabha Sashi Bhusan Behera, who was fielded from the Jayadev Assembly constituency or in the case of Rajya Sabha member Rabi Narayan Mohapatra who contested and won from Ranpur Assembly constituency this time, this was bound to raise eyebrows.
Reliable sources have told that this reporter that Singhdeo had sent in his letter of resignation from the Assembly to the former Speaker Pardip Amat through a courier in a desperate attempt to be eligible to take oath as a Rajya Sabha member, along with Kalpataru Das and Sarojini Hembram. But after consulting the party supremo, Amat informed Singhdeo that the boss ‘did not want’ him to resign. The latter had no option but to resign himself to his fate.
Having lost the Assembly election to his arch rival Narasingha Mishra, the alleged buddy of the Chief Minister is now in a situation that is best described by that Hindi proverb: ‘na ghar ka na ghatka’.
If observers saw shades of la’ affaire Bijay Mohapatra in the annihilation of Singhdeo, they can hardly be faulted for that.
As in Singhdeo’s case, the defeat of former Finance Minister Prasanna Acharya could well mark the beginning of the end of the road for him. Unless Naveen sends him to the Rajya Sabha in the next couple of years, it would be extremely difficult for him to get back into reckoning.
The problem for the disgruntled veterans is that they can’t even protest openly against the slight. Having just registered his biggest mandate ever, Naveen now has the authority to ignore them, secure in the knowledge that he would get the full backing of the young brigade in the unlikely event of push coming to shove.