By Sandeep Sahu
‘Biju Congress’ is old hat. The new entity on the political horizon is ‘Congress BJD’. At the rate which Congress leaders are being roped in by BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik, the ruling party is in serious danger of losing its identity as the strongest anti-Congress platform in the state.
Those of Janata Party and Janata Dal vintage in the party are already feeling marginalised as hordes of Congressmen are making a beeline for Naveen Nivas to sign the BJD membership form. The more fortunate ones like former Leader of Opposition Bhupinder Singh and Brajarajnagar MLA Anup Sai are even having the rare privilege of sharing a sweet with Naveen in the full glare of television cameras, a courtesy not extended to those who have been loyal soldiers of the party since its inception in the winter of 1997.
A Facebook post on Sunday said it all. “Every time somebody joins the BJD, Naveen Patnaik says his entry would be a ‘tremendous asset’ to the party. Does that mean those who have been with the party since its inception are ‘liabilities’?”
Hardly a day passes without some Congress leader or the other joining the ruling party with ‘hundreds of supporters’. It all started with the induction of Champua MLA Jitu Patnaik and Talcher MLA Braja Kishore Pradhan, both Congressmen who fought and won the last Assembly election as ‘independents’.
In the days that followed, Nayagarh district unit president of the Congress Kumar Hemendra Singh, Bhupinder Singh and Anup Sai have pitched their tents with the BJD. Kamala Das and Umesh Swain have already done the mandatory ‘kurnish’ before the Emperor and are living on hope that their prayers would be granted. The lesser leaders are too numerous to be counted.
Of course, the Congressisation of the BJD started shortly before the 2009 elections when the party, then under the tight grip of Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, roped in Pinaki Mishra, Rohit Pujari, Sarada Nayak, Raghunath Sahu, Dr Nrusingha Charan Sahu and several others. Except for Rohit Pujari, who lost out to his former party colleague Amar Pradhan in the Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency, most of them won the elections too, proving in the process that a BJD ticket can do wonders to the winning prospects of even rank turncoats.
Nothing proved it better than the case of Pinaki Mishra, who had lost two consecutive elections from the Puri parliamentary constituency as a Congress candidate to BJD candidate Braja Kishore Tripathy, but won the election comfortably once he armed himself with a BJD ticket.
Sarada Nayak’s case was even more curious. The man infamous for once spitting on the poster of Biju Patnaik not only got a ticket from the party named after his object of hate, but went on the become a minister of state with independent charge.
No wonder the old guard, which has kept the flag of anti-Congressism flying all these years, is feeling restless at this virtual invasion. But it is finding itself utterly powerless to reverse the process because it fears that its very existence would be under threat if it so much as protests the course the party is taking, forget trying to change the course altogether.
Things have been particularly difficult for the likes of Damodar Rout, for whom anti-Congressism has been an article of faith, in the present scheme of things.
Of course, it can be said for argument’s sake that a Congressman does not remain a Congressman once he joins the BJD. But there are so many of them coming in, most with an assurance of BJD tickets, that there is no way the anti-Congress core of the party can remain unaffected. Take out anti-Congressism and nothing remains to distinguish between the BJD and the Congress.
Naveen Patnaik knows he is taking a big gamble by inducting so many Congressmen – many of whom have spent an entire lifetime in the party founded by AO Hume – with promises of tickets to boot. He is banking on his own charisma to ensure victory for these Johny Come Lately’s. The BJD ticket, he reckons, will be a force multiplier for these recruits, just as it was in the case of Messrs Pinaki Mishra and Sarada Nayak in 2009. In any case, he has chosen his targets well. All the recent recruits are sitting MLAs with a strong base in their respective constituencies, who had managed to win even as his party won a landslide in 2009. His calculation is that all murmurs of protest (there is no sign of even that as yet) will die down in due course once these new recruits win.
But the moot question is: will they win? BJD leaders and workers may be tongue-tied before the party supremo. But past masters in the electoral game as they are, they can certainly queer the pitch for these imports from the rival party who have usurped their tickets.
The grapevine has it that there are at least five serious contenders from among hard core party cadres for the BJD ticket from every Assembly constituency. While they may be engaged in a no-holds-barred exercise to undercut the chances of each other, they can be trusted to gang up against the ‘outsider’ – as poor Linkan Subuddhi found out in the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections in January this year. Unlike the Congress deserters, she had no political baggage. In fact, she had everything going for her. She was young, dynamic and had just come into the limelight with her brave intervention in a child marriage case in a NOIDA basti. But the fact that she came a poor third conclusively demolished the myth that being the supremo’s personal pick can ensure the victory of just anybody.
By the looks of it, the political intrigue that ensured Linkan’s defeat in the BMC polls is going to be at full play all over the state this time – what with sundry film and television stars threatening to further reduce the number of BJD tickets available to hard core party men. You cannot expect an Arun Sahu to campaign wholeheartedly for a Hemendra Singh (if that latter is given a ticket that is) even if you are Naveen Patnaik. If anything, you would expect him to do everything within his means to ensure the defeat of the usurper.
Naveen’s assessment obviously is that any damage that disgruntled local leaders may cause will be more than offset by the popularity he believes he still enjoys with the electorate.
If Naveen’s assessment is proved right by the results of the coming elections, he would well and truly emerge as Mr. Invincible. If not, the BJD – and politics in the state as a whole – will not be the same again.