By Sandeep Sahu
For once, it is time to give nitpicking a break. And allow the man of the moment (no prizes for guessing who it is) his moment of glory.
After all, it is not often that an incumbent government keeps its best ever performance for its fourth successive innings. Jyoti Basu may have had a longer uninterrupted reign as Chief Minister of a state, but I doubt if even he went on adding to his party’s numbers with each election the way Naveen Patnaik has done. In doing so, the BJD supremo has turned ‘anti-incumbency’ – that mysterious concept invented by talking heads in television studios – on its head, feet and whatever other limb it has.
‘Anti-incumbency’, however, is not the only thing that Naveen has beaten back. The one thing that has gone virtually unnoticed in the euphoria over the victory – at least until now – is that for three elections in a row now, he has bucked both conventional wisdom and the national trend. NDA may not have ‘shone’ much in the 2004 elections in the rest of the country, but it certainly shone bright in Odisha. For the record, the NDA won 16 Lok Sabha seats with BJD winning nine and BJP seven and a thumping majority of 93 in the 147-member Assembly.
Not many pundits gave the BJD, fresh from its bitter split with its 11-year long alliance partner BJP, much of a chance in 2009. Proving the sceptics wrong, it managed to win 14 out of the 21 LS seats and an incredible 103 Assembly seats. Even as the Congress, the BJD’s main rival, swept Lok Sabha polls in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh under the leadership of the late YS Rajshekhar Reddy, Naveen did not allow the party to win more than six here.
This time, he has done something that does take some doing: stopping the Modi juggernaut even as it rolled all over the rest of the country. Jual Oram’s victory in Sundargarh is small consolation for the BJP, which till only the other day was boasting about winning ‘at least seven Lok Sabha seats’.
What he did in the Assembly election was even more remarkable. In walking away with 117 seats in a House of 147, the man who was supposedly battling ‘triple anti-incumbency’, ‘credible’ allegations over a series of scams and a loss of control over things, made sceptics – among whom this author counts himself – eat an irritating, pitch black bird known to fly away with whatever it can lay its beak on. [And again no prizes for guessing which bird it is.]
To say that he has done most things needed to win an election is to state the obvious. He certainly was the first off the blocks and also the best prepared. His cadres too were the best prepared among the three major contenders for power in the state.
Add to that all the poison-tipped arrows that the opposition and incorrigible sceptic like this author are bound to aim at him: use, misuse and abuse of the ‘official machinery’, raining sops on every segment of the electorate, use of money, liquor and muscle power and cutting deals with amenable opposition leaders. But it still does not quite explain the scale of the victory.
As I was groping for an answer to the question “What makes Naveen tick?” – a question which I am sure must be exercising the minds of several others – on Friday evening after the results had become clear, I suddenly remembered an anecdote at home in late March, which I thought provided the answer to this intriguing question. At once, I thought I had managed to put my finger on the one thing which, more than anything else, explains Naveen’s seemingly interminable honeymoon with the voters: ‘connect’.
The incident took place when the election scene was just about warming up. As Naveen came out on to the verandah of Naveen Nivas (on television that is) to announce the admission of one of the many ‘great assets’ he acquired in the run up to the election (I don’t quite remember which one it was), suddenly I heard my mother-in-law, an affectionate lady who had come over for a few days, literally scream.
“Look at these god forsaken people. He could fall over any moment. He is sick. And look at these morons. Nobody is even lending him a hand, forget taking him to the hospital,” she said as she watched Naveen’s head fall over to the right repeatedly.
“He is looking after so many poor people,” she continued with what had by now assumed the proportions of a monologue. “Just imagine what will happen if something happens to him. Hahakaar hei jiba (It would be apocalypse)”.
My mother-in-law made sure she was back in Baripada, where she belongs, by the time polling took place in her part on April 17. The day after the vote, my wife called up her mother and asked her who she had voted for. “Where else? On the ‘sankha’ (conch),” she replied immediately. “But who was the candidate?’ my wife persisted. “How on earth does that matter? I have voted for Naveen,” was her cryptic reply.
That is what I meant when I talked about ‘connect’, which some people find it more fashionable and trendy to call ‘chemistry’.
Early estimates suggest that over 80% of women in the state have, like my mom-in-law, voted for the ‘sankha’ – and, by extension, Naveen – candidate be damned. Considering that women constitute nearly 50% of the population, their vote alone would ensure that no other party stands a ghost of a chance against the BJD. [Naveen graciously made a special mention of the ‘Maas’ in his thanksgiving message delivered in his customary broken Odia read out from a Roman script.] Add to that the millions of men and youth who genuinely believe they have had a better deal from the Naveen government than his opponents can ever give him and Naveen appears well nigh invincible.
You and I can, ‘aware citizens’ as we are, can crib till the cows come home about this scam or that, complain about his monarchical style of functioning and find fault with his utter disdain for the language. (I have been a particularly harsh critic of him on the last score.] But it is important to acknowledge – and respect – the scale of the mandate because not doing so would amount to disrespect to the democratic verdict, something that all of us democracy loving people cherish so dearly.
As for resuming the battle with Naveen over issues, we now have five full years to do that!
* Sandeep Sahu is the Executive Editor of Odisha Sun Times