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Naveen treads on thin ice

Bhubaneswar, Sept. 18: Yesterday’s coup of sorts in the BJD parliamentary party has once again propelled the five-year-old party into serious uncertainty.

But more than anything else, it is the future of party president and chief minister Naveen Patnaik which is at stake after dissidents dealt him a back-breaking blow by electing Prasanna Acharya as leader of the parliamentary party in place of Union water resources minister Arjun Sethi.

As the chief minister held a series of closed-door meetings at his residence this morning to decide the future course of action, nervousness and despair was writ large on his face.

“It’s unfortunate that the MPs have chosen a time when the state is reeling under drought and several ministers are touring the affected districts. If they had any grievance, they could have discussed it with me. But the dissident activities would not affect me as long as the people of Orissa are with me,” Patnaik told newsmen at his residence this morning. He said Sethi continued to be the leader of the BJD parliamentary party.

Said to be a master of realpolitik, Patnaik had smashed all rebellion in the nick of time in the past. He had booted out Bijoy Mohapatra, a former minister and founder-member of the party in the wake of 2000 Assembly elections.

Mohapatra was shown the door as soon as the last date of withdrawal of nomination papers for the Assembly election expired, denying him a chance to contest the election even as an Independent. Former Union minister Dilip Ray was unceremoniously dumped from the Cabinet at the behest of the chief minister. Ray avenged his defeat when he foiled Patnaik’s bid to prevent him from getting into the Rajya Sabha during the elections to the Upper House.

As the coup was being drafted in New Delhi yesterday, very few knew that it was Mohapatra and Ray who were behind it. On August 9, Arjun Sethi alerted the chief minister about the possible split in the party, which led to the suspension of three MPs. But on Tuesday, it was all over for Naveen Patnaik as Prasanna Acharya, Prasanna Patsani and Bhartruhari Mahtab joined hands with the three suspended MPs to form a separate block.

It was grand reunion of all Naveen-baiters, who had in the past been humiliated by Patnaik and Pyarimohan Mohapatra, his retired bureaucrat-adviser. The revolt was as much against Patnaik as it was against his adviser, who was seen to be pulling the strings in the administration. “It was a government by default,” Orissa Gana Parishad leader Bijoy Mohapatra told The Telegraph from New Delhi.

With the dissidents having tasted success, they aim to replace Patnaik by October 4 as leader of the BJD. Though a split in the 70-member BJD Legislature Party is unlikely at this moment, it cannot be ruled out once the dissidents cobble up a majority. In that case, Patnaik would have to accept the dissidents’ demand of dropping Sethi and Union steel minister Brajakishore Tripathy. But it is a demand he is unlikely to accept.

On the other hand, if he expels the six rebel MPs from the party, then it would precipitate a crisis. Patnaik’s agony is likely to be compounded on Friday when Kumudini Patnaik holds an oust-Naveen rally in Hinjili, his Assembly constituency.

The BJD rebel MPs are said to be working out a strategy to formally split the party after the Puja holidays, adds our correspondent from New Delhi. BJD sources said they were trying to first unite all splinter groups of the Janata parivar before the split.

After the split, the group will claim to be the “real BJD” as majority of the party MPs are with them. Sources claimed that even the two ministers may join the dissidents at a later stage.

The six rebel MPs — Bhartruhari Mehatab, Jagannath Mallick, P.K.Samantray, Prasanna Patsani, Kumudini Patnaik and Prasanna Acharya and Rajya Sabha MP Dilip Ray and former chairman of the BJD political affairs committee Bijoy Mahapatra held a strategy session in Delhi today.

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