Naveen Patnaik campaigns in Odisha’s Ganjam district. File picture
The socialite author who made a reluctant entry into politics nearly 17 years ago, almost shanghaied into donning his father Biju Patnaik’s rather outsized mantle, is now a veteran who can teach a trick or two to his opponents.
As chief minister, Naveen Patnaik leads his Biju Janata Dal into the poll battle aiming for a record fourth term in office. He has proved himself to be a master strategist who can not only read people’s pulse but also anticipate the moves of his rivals. His two-pronged strategy to win this war is development and an all-out attack on the Congress-led government at the Centre.
Criss-crossing constituencies — 10 Lok Sabha and 70 Assembly seats go to the polls on April 10 followed by another 11 Lok Sabha and 77 Assembly seats in the second phase on April 17 — he talks about development which, he, in a style reminiscent of his legendary father, asserts is crucial to restoring the pride of “four crore Odias”.
He talks about his cheap rice scheme which is benefiting nearly 60 lakh poor across the state, old age pensions, the ubiquitous 108 ambulance service and the Mamta project for pregnant mothers.
His campaign is evoking a great response, especially in western and southern Odisha, areas once synonymous with droughts and starvation deaths. The slogan “ab sabke muh par ek baat, koi bhukha na rahe, gar BJD rahegi saath (everyone is saying there will be no hunger if the BJD continues to be in power)” reverberates at his public meeting in Rourkela where he is engaged in a proxy battle with his bÍte noire, former Union minister Dilip Ray.
Naveen has positioned himself to attack the Centre, which he holds responsible for the backwardness of his state.
“We have been demanding special category status for a long time but they have turned a deaf ear to our pleas. Odisha has been neglected in almost all the fields by the UPA government,” says the chief minister as crowds cheer him in one constituency after another in western and southern Odisha where his popularity seems to be at its peak despite some sympathy for the BJP, thanks to the Narendra Modi factor.
He invokes Biju Patnaik frequently, aware of the legend’s persisting appeal among voters across the state. “I am committed to realising Biju Babu’s dreams and making every Odia proud of this state,” says Naveen while campaigning in Koraput district where he also recalls his father’s long association with the region’s tribal residents.
The district, where his party’s tribal face Jhinna Hikaka has locked horns with Congress veteran and former chief minister Giridhar Gamang, is crucial to his plans of augmenting his clout in “Dilli’s durbar”, irrespective of which party comes to power at the Centre.
The Opposition is making a desperate attempt to corner him on the mining scam. The state Congress campaign committee chief and Union minister, Srikant Jena, describes it as the biggest scam in Odisha so far, perpetrated by a handful of families.
He also accuses the chief minister of trying to appropriate central schemes and project them as his own to hoodwink the people.
The main Opposition party is also seeking to puncture the BJD’s claims on the cheap rice front. Huge billboards put up by the Congress in western Odisha constituencies like Sundergarh “explain” how the BPL beneficiaries allotted 35kg of subsidised rice per month are actually being given only 25kg by the state government.
“We have organised a state-wide campaign on the issue, filing FIRs against the chief minister for committing a fraud on the people,” says state Congress president Jaydev Jena.
The BJP talks less about rice and more about scams, beginning with the mining scam that the party claims to have brought to light in 2009.
“Since then, there has been the dal scam, bungling in allotment of government houses and glaring irregularities in recommending coal blocks to private players. Corruption is all-pervasive under this regime and people this time are going to give Naveen Patnaik a fitting reply,” says party veteran Suresh Pujari, campaigning in Sambalpur.
The Opposition campaign, however, is yet to make a dent in the chief minister’s image as an honest bachelor who gave up a life of luxury in Delhi to change the face of a state that till about a decade ago was known to the outside world only for starvation deaths in Kalahandi and Bolangir.
“Today, people know us because of our industries and the kind of investments the state is attracting. We can hold our heads high for the first time,” says Akhaya Behera, a young techie in Rourkela. It is people like him and this changed perception of the state that will decide the outcome of this battle.