For once, he was foxed. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Orissa and president of the Biju Janata Dal, could hardly believe what he had heard on Thursday evening. The news of six of his members of parliament in the 10-member parliamentary party of BJD electing Prasanna Acharya in place of his protégé and Union water resources minister, Arjun Sethi, came as a bolt from the blue for its president. The wily Patnaik had clearly been snared by his rivals.
The rebels had hatched an elaborate plot. They took care to ensure that last month’s mistake was not repeated when Patnaik had pre-empted a split through suspensions. Prasanna Acharya and Prasanna Patsani had met the chief minister a day before the coup to discuss issues related to their constituencies. Both left Bhubaneswar for New Delhi just in time to attend the meeting of rebel MPs at Bhartruhari Mahtab’s residence on the afternoon of September 17. The rebels had given him a taste of his own medicine after waiting in the wings for the last 30 months.
As the news reached Bhubaneswar, Patnaik initially buried his head like an ostrich and refused to admit the crisis. “Let me gather the facts,” he mumbled before a few newsmen at the state secretariat before slinking away in his characteristic manner. The day after, he tried to put up a brave face, saying that the developments would not affect his party and government. “I have no reason to feel threatened,” he declared.
Despite all the bravado, Patnaik seems to be unnerved by the dissidents. As the dissidents organized an anti-Patnaik rally at Hinjili, his assembly constituency, the state administration went on an overdrive to muzzle them. While the local BJD unit called a bandh in the area and blocked roads to prevent the supporters from coming to Hinjili, the police arrested several supporters of dissident leaders like Ramakrushna Patnaik. The administration even went to the extent of denying the organizers a venue forcing them to hold it at a busy square. The rally had a good turnout considering all-out efforts by the state administration against it. The dissidents at the rally projected Ramakrushna Patnaik, the chief minister’s estranged colleague, as the future chief minister while apologizing for having “foisted Patnaik on Orissa”.
So has the aura about Patnaik faded' When he started out five years ago, Patnaik was naveen (greenhorn in Oriya) in politics. Despite constant sniggers of critics and fellow politicians, the son of Biju Patnaik was a refreshing change in the state. The previous regime was rejected in the hustings for its crony nepotism and corruption. Patnaik had come with no political baggage and therefore had nobody to fear or favour. He also had a massive mandate to carry out his promise of providing a corruption-free administration. The vote was as much for an upright man unsullied by scandals as it was for an opportunity to clean up the mess left behind by the previous corrupt regime.
But insecurity is believed to have got the better of him. Two-and-a-half-years ago, as filing of nominations papers for the state assembly elections drew close, Patnaik booted Bijoy Mahapatra, one of the founder-members of the BJD, out of the party. Patnaik never trusted Mahapatra or other senior leaders like Dilip Ray and Nalinikanta Mohanty, all among the beginning members of the BJD. Ironically, these were the men who had anointed him as the successor of Biju Patnaik, only to be driven out later.
Though dissidence grew in the party, Patnaik’s popularity was generally unaffected. His Oriya had not improved a bit since the day he landed in Orissa. But nobody seemed to mind his language. His constant harping on providing a transparent and corruption-free government had touched people’s hearts. Three assembly bypoll victories followed. He showed his resolve of fighting corruption in the state administration with suspensions, transfers and setting up of inquiry commissions. Transparency was the buzzword for his new government.
Patnaik’s cup of woes brimmed over last month when he expanded his cabinet. The inclusion of four ministers — Damodar Rout, Kalindi Behera, Suryo Patro and Prafulla Ghadei — with dubious record dented his shining armour. These ministers have either been accused of amassing disproportionate assets or heinous crimes like murder. The panchayati raj minister, Damodar Rout, has even been accused of sexual misdemeanours in the past.
Considering all this, it was expected that the chief minister would keep such characters at bay. But a thoughtless Patnaik seems to have little time for such things as public perception or keeping good company. Although these ministers were cleared by trial courts, his government could have gone for appeal in higher courts against the acquittals. It is obvious that the appeals were not filed because he wanted to induct them into the cabinet. So, when his detractors say that Patnaik’s previous fights against corruption were aimed solely at weeding out dissidents, their suspicions cannot be entirely dismissed.
Last year, Patnaik sacked three cabinet ministers — Nalinikanta Mohanty, Kamala Das and Prasant Nanda — for graft although they faced no vigilance charges. Similarly, he requested the Centre to retire three senior Indian administrative service officials just before the Bhadrak assembly bypoll early this year. These bureaucrats are not known to be in the good books of the chief minister, who would have also been benefitted politically by their removal.
But the government was snubbed when the Centre returned the file of a senior IAS officer as his records were clean. A former collector of the Gajapati district and six other officials were chargesheeted by the state vigilance department for graft just before the Nayagarh polls. A recent opinion poll by a leading newsmagazine showed that Patnaik’s popularity has taken a downward turn since he took charge of the state two-and-a-half years ago.
It’s clear that Patnaik’s arbitrary style of functioning has brought things to such a pass. The rebels were also angry at Pyarimohan Mohaptra, a retired IAS officer who once worked under Patnaik’s father. Patnaik is reported to be dependant on him on important administrative matters. The rebels claim that the chief minister merely executes Pyaribabu’s plans. The dissidents are also aggrieved over Patnaik’s excessive reliance on a coterie of bureaucrats for day-to-day functioning. “It’s a government by default,” says Bijoy Mohapatra. Other rebels rue the fact that Patnaik does not hold discussions and consultations with them on any issue.
In the 10-member BJD parliamentary party, only four MPs are on Patnaik’s side now. Incidentally, these are either ministers or friends of individuals who are ministers in the state cabinet. With just four MPs in his party, his importance in the NDA is likely to be diminished. But the real threat seems to be in a different place. Buoyed by their latest success, the rebels, led by the expelled BJD men, Bijoy Mohapatra and Dilip Ray, are working in tandem to split the 70-member BJD legislature party. Ray had earlier successfully challenged Patnaik’s leadership in May this year, when he got elected to the Rajya Sabha as an independent candidate.
The rebels are confident that it is a matter of time before the legislature party splits and Patnaik is thrown out of the party and government. With the assembly sessions beginning this week, horse-trading and politicking activities are likely to shift there. Indications are that Patnaik would stay on for now while the rebels regroup. But his authority has definitely been eroded. Already dislodged from his high moral ground after the cabinet expansion, Patnaik has exposed his Achilles’ heel far too much.
With dissidence on the rise, the chief minister would be busy battling his own partymen. Developmental activities would be the first victims of this internal strife. Orissa currently has a debt burden of Rs 24,000 crore, and the fiscal and administrative reform process initiated by Britain’s department for international development is likely to get derailed in the event of political chaos. If Patnaik stays on as chief minister, then his government would be one of little authority. If he is thrown out of power — which seems quite possible at this moment — he will have missed an opportunity and will be remembered as the chief minister who had promised a lot but failed to deliver the goods.