Why Naveen is not losing sleep over ULB poll boycott in west Odisha?

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    By Sandeep Sahu

    Now that the minor diversion of the talks between the government and the striking lawyers of western Odisha is out of the away, it is time to take stock of the way things are panning out on the ground over the demand for a High Court bench in the region in the context of the upcoming municipal elections and – by extension – the Assembly election that would follow in the next few months.

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    The failure of the talks has expectedly led to a hardening of attitudes in western Odisha and has given a much needed shot in the arm to the Koshal Kranti Dal (KKD), fighting for a separate state of Koshal comprising 10 western Odisha districts. Emboldened by the support of more than 120 organisations, a resurgent KKD has now given a call for western Odisha bandh on Monday. Considering that most parts of the region have, in any case, been in a state of shut down over the HC bench demand, a bandh call perhaps did not make much of a sense. But you can hardly blame the KKD, a fringe organisation till recently, for attempting to shift the focus away from the Central Action Committee (CAC) of western Odisha Bar Associations to itself and win over a few more people to its cause in the process.

    Both the CAC and the KKD have acted entirely along expected lines  – the first in announcing that it would continue its strike till the demand of a HC bench is fulfilled and the second by deciding to ‘intensify’ the agitation for a separate Koshal state. But the government’s moves before and after the talks have been intriguing to say the least.

    First, barely 24 hours after the Chief Minister told the Assembly that talks were not possible with the striking lawyers of western Odisha in view of the model code of conduct in force for the coming urban local bodies (ULBs) elections, the government discovered that talks were possible, after all. The State Election Commission (SEC) had graciously allowed the government to go ahead with the talks, Law minister Maheswar Mohanty informed the House. But no one bothered asking the Law minister why the government did not consult the SEC before the CM made the statement when the lawyers had made their intentions clear several weeks back. The government did not budge even after all political parties, in district after district, unanimously decided to boycott the ULB polls.

    The govt ‘game plan’

    The belated consultation with the SEC was clearly an afterthought, born out of the realisation that it would be difficult to hide behind the smokescreen of the model code of conduct and that a tokenism of a talk would not affect the overall ‘game plan’ of the government on the issue.

    There are two components of this ‘game plan’; one, dividing the striking lawyers in western Odisha, thereby weakening its case and two, encouraging other regions to come up with similar demands to weaken the case of a High Court bench anywhere at all and thereby keeping the lawyers of Cuttack, the only reason for a HC bench not being set up anywhere in the state, happy.   By the looks of it, the government is largely succeeding in its strategy. It has successfully driven a wedge between Sambalpur and Balangir on the one hand and between Sambalpur and Rourkela on the other over the location of the HC bench. No wonder the bar associations of Balangir and Rourkela have stayed out of the CAC.

    Intriguing silence

    Even as the west is fighting the west, lawyers in the north and south of the state have acted in a manner that suggests the hand of the BJD government in preparing the road map for them. While lawyers in Balasore have, perhaps for the first time, seriously raised the demand for a High Court bench in the town, their counterparts in Berhampur have been deafeningly silent through the entire hullabaloo over the demand. Common sense suggests that lawyers in Berhampur should have jumped onto the HC bench bandwagon since it was one of the two places (the other being Sambalpur) where an HC bench has been a long standing demand. If the Bar Association in the premier south Odisha town has chosen to watch the fun from the sidelines rather than jump headlong into the fray, the answer has to be found in politics – the BJD brand of politics, to be more precise. One must not lose sight of the fact that Berhampur is in Ganjam district, Naveen Patnaik’s home turf.

    New player in fray

    The same brand of politics is also at play in Balasore suddenly entering the fray. There are reasons to believe that the ruling party has encouraged lawyers in the northern coastal town to press for a HC bench to further its own narrow political ends. For one thing, it dilutes the much stronger – and older – case of western Odisha for a HC bench and encourages other regions not currently in fray – undivided Koraput, for example – to press for the same, further diluting the case for any High Court bench at all. [The Naveen government has made no secret of its intention through the Chief Minister’s announcement that his government would recommend the setting up High Court benches in western Odisha, along with ‘other regions of the state’.] Playing into Naveen’s hands suits the lawyers’ fraternity in Balasore just fine. After all, their non-existent claim suddenly gets some legitimacy and traction. It is important to note that while the lawyers of Balasore have continued pressing for an HC bench, there has been no threat to boycott the ULB polls, unlike in western Odisha districts.

    ‘Heads I win, tails you lose’

    If the larger BJD game plan is still not clear, here it is. Letting western Odisha boycott the ULB polls suits the ruling party just fine. The region has never really been a bastion of the BJD and there are reasons for the party to expect an adverse outcome in the municipal elections which, in turn, would have an adverse impact on its chances in the next Assembly elections due in less than a year.  The non-holding of municipal elections in western Odisha suits BJD in two distinct ways. First, it can continue claiming – at least till the Assembly elections – that the verdict would have gone in its favour had the elections taken place, blaming the lawyers all the while. Second, it can have effective control of the ULBs in the region since Section 11 (5) of the Odisha Municipal Act, 1950 empowers the state government to nominate persons of its choice to all reserved category seats, which incidentally add up to about 65% of the total seats. A win-win situation, if ever there was on. No wonder the Naveen government is not losing any sleep over the threat of western Odisha lawyers to continue their strike.

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