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Bijay-wary Naveen plays Bengali card

Mahakalpada (Kendrapara), April 13: Engaged in a proxy war with his arch rival Bijay Mohapatra of the BJP in this coastal constituency, chief minister Naveen Patnaik today played the ‘Bengali’ card to shore up his party candidate Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak’s fortunes here.

Criss-crossing the constituency, Naveen, who was accompanied by former minister Arabinda Dhali, called upon the Bengali-speaking people, who constitute a major chunk of the electorate, not to vote for the BJP. Naveen visited the constituency for the second time today.

“Voting for the BJP can be detrimental to your interests (During the NDA regime, a few illegal immigrants were given deportation notices. A protracted legal battle is on). On the other hand, we are committed to safeguarding your interests,” Naveen told a rally at the seaside village of Ramnagar, which has a large number of Bengali settlers.

Aware that land rights of the settlers was a sensitive issue, the chief minister sought to strike a chord with them by focusing on this problem. “The bona fide settlers here are facing problems related to land settlement. Many of them don’t have registered records of rights of the land in their possession. We will take care of this if voted back to power,” said Naveen.

The constituency, where Mohapatra is pitted against the might of the ruling BJD, is home to about 29,000 registered Bengali-speaking voters spread across about seven gram panchayats. For the past few years, a chunk of Bengali settlers has been in the eye of a storm with an “infiltrator” tag haunting them.

A Bengali himself, Dhali also sought to play upon the fears of the “infiltrators” facing the prospects of being deported. “The BJP is hell bent on branding all the Bengali-speaking settlers as Bangladeshis. Deportation notices have been served upon 1,551 bonafide citizens living here and they had been asked to pack their bags. This was the result of a conspiracy hatched by the BJP when it was in power at the Centre. Voting for the BJP would mean inviting trouble,” Dhali told the gathering in chaste Odia.

Former energy minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak, the BJD candidate from the constituency, also harped on the same theme assuring the settlers that his party was committed to protecting their interests. “Naveen Patnaik has taken a vow to protect you since you have been living here as Indian citizens,” he thundered to the rapturous applause of the capacity crowd.

Ironically, the so-called infiltrators were identified and served with deportation notices when the BJD was ruling the state in tandem with the BJP. Ever since, the issue has been controversial with the deportation move on the hold.

Given the long history of animus between Naveen and Mohapatra, who was thrown out of the BJD in 2000 after being denied the party ticket in the Assembly elections that year, this is going to be a no-holds-barred battle. The signs are already there with the two leaders going against each other all guns blazing.

Without naming Mohapatra, who is contesting the seat for the first time shifting here from nearby Patkura, his traditional constituency, Naveen accused him of betraying his father, late Biju Patnaik in 1995 when he as the chief minister of a Janata Dal government lost the Assembly elections and had to bow out of power. Mohapatra was a cabinet minister in the Biju Patnaik government from 1990 to 1995.

The chief minister reiterated his statement that the defeat in 1995 caused by the betrayal of some of his party colleagues rankled Biju babu till his death. Without naming Mohapatra, Naveen said: “One of those leaders is contesting from here this time. I am sure the voters will reject him.”

Mohapatra, widely perceived to be one of the heirs of Biju Patnaik’s political legacy, is keenly aware of the odds stacked against him. But the veteran, instead of being rattled, has challenged the chief minister to an open war. “Stop this proxy (chhaya) war. If you have the guts, come and fight me directly,” he has said at one of his meetings throwing down the gauntlet to the chief minister.

By all appearances it is going to be a riveting contest with the eyes of the entire state on this constituency where the presence of the Congress candidate Balram Parida seems to be a matter of formality.