Is the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) having a rethink on aligning itself with the ‘non-Congress and non-BJP’ front (also  known variously as the ‘Third Front’, ‘Federal Front’, ‘Secular Front’ et al) for the coming general elections ?

That is the question being asked animatedly both in New Delhi and Bhubaneswar after the ruling party in Odisha decided to skip the meeting of the ‘Front’ partners in the national capital on Tuesday.

While CPM general secretary Prakash Karat made light of the absence of BJD in the meeting saying its president Naveen Patnaik had informed him beforehand about his inability to attend the meeting today due to a ‘prior engagement’, the BJD supremo left the whole question of aligning with the Front open-ended telling journalists in Bhubaneswar that “It is still early days for that.”

Clever Or Unsure ?
Naveen Patnaik : Clever,Unsure Or Scared  ?

The point to note here is that Naveen did not participate in any of the two meetings that the 11-party formation had earlier – the anti-communal rally in New Delhi on October 30 and the meeting to formulate floor strategy during the parliamentary session earlier this month – preferring to send his emissary, Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, on the two previous occasions instead.

It could be argued that the BJD supremo could have sent Panda – or anybody else for that matter – to represent the party at today’s meetings, just as it had done on the two previous occasions, if he indeed had some ‘prior engagement’. But with his decision to give the meeting today a complete go-by, the BJD boss has certainly provided fodder for speculation that he may be weighing its options afresh.

What senior BJD leader and Health minister Damodar Rout said when asked about the party’s absence at today’s meeting is revealing.

“It depends entirely on party supremo Naveen Patnaik. If he does not instruct anyone to attend the meeting, how can somebody go on his own? He may not have asked anybody to attend,” the BJD vice president said.

Rout’s comment can be interpreted in two ways. First, he knows that the BJD supremo has not asked anyone from the party to attend the Front meeting this time, in which case it means the party is having second thoughts about aligning with the Third Front. Second, Patnaik is keeping his cards so close to his chest about a possible alliance this time that even senior most leaders in the party have no inkling as to which way his mind is working.

Speculation about a possible rethink on the part of Naveen Patnaik is not without basis though.

After leading the two Left parties up the garden path about a possible seat sharing arrangement for the coming elections, the BJD suddenly announced a few days ago that it would contest ‘all 21 Lok Sabha seats and 147 Assembly seats’ in the state in the coming elections. This meant the BJD has decided not to allow other fringe players to ride piggyback on it and lose a few seats which are there for the asking.

With recent opinion polls suggesting that the support for the BJP led NDA is growing with each passing day, the BJD boss clearly sees greater wisdom in keeping his options open rather than be seen as openly siding with the Third Front. Significantly,  BJP Prime Ministerial candidate, during his rally in Bhubaneswar on February 11, slammed the Third Front while treating Naveen with kid gloves.

To the discerning observer, this suggested that some kind of back channel talks are going on between the two sides, something that had become evident when the central leadership of the BJP instructed its party MLAs to vote for the BJD backed candidate Raghunath Mohapatra in the Rajya Sabha elections.

With the possibility of Narendra Modi becoming Prime Minister after the next election now looking more real than ever before, it makes eminent sense for Naveen not to antagonise the Gujarat strongman primarily because he needs all the help from the next government in stonewalling or derailing a possible CBI probe into the massive mining and chit fund scam. It is this fear rather than any disenchantment with the Third Front that has forced the rethink on him.