There was no element of surprise in Tuesday’s split in the Biju Janata Dal’s parliamentary party. Given the seeemingly unending rebellions and dissensions within the party, a split was waiting to happen. This is, however, not to suggest that the rebels have covered themselves in glory. Some of their complaints against the party’s leader and Orissa’s chief minister, Mr Naveen Patnaik, are not unjustified.His style of functioning, which his critics find “authoritarian”, has been somewhat different from the typical politician’s. But that is perhaps because Mr Patnaik, who lived mostly outside his home state and had never been in politics, was catapulted to the party’s leadership on the death of his father, Biju Patnaik. His inability to master his mother tongue, which the rebels consider another major weakness of his leadership, is also due to his remaining an alien for so long. But the same rebels knew of his unfamiliarity with both the politics and the language of Orissa when they accepted him as their leader. They had depended on his charisma and his father’s legacy to cover up the party’s ideological inadequacies and win elections. They did not seem to have reckoned that dynastic and personal charisma alone cannot hold the party together for very long. Mr Patnaik still retains much of his personal charm over the people of Orissa but he does not seem to have honed his leadership skills well enough. That so many senior leaders fell out with him and had to be expelled from the party suggests his inability to carry the flock with him.
The BJD’s internal problems can make things uneasy for the Bharatiya Janata Party. The split in the BJD’s parliamentary party is likely to lead to another division among its members in the Orissa assembly. As and when that happens, Mr Patnaik’s chief ministership could be at stake. While the BJD is a partner in the National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre, the BJP is an ally of the state government Mr Patnaik heads. The rebels in the BJD’s parliamentary party have also pledged their support to the NDA government. If the pattern is repeated in the Orissa assembly, the breakaway group may seek the support of the BJP to form their own government in Bhubaneswar. The BJP leadership can assume a neutral role in New Delhi because the BJD’s problems do not pose a threat to the NDA’s majority in the Lok Sabha. But things may be messier in Bhubaneswar. Siding with the rebels will expose the BJP to the charge of encouraging the breakup of an ally. Things are uncertain for Mr Patnaik. It is certain though, that Orissa’s welfare has taken a backseat.