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A MATTER OF NEW SCRUPLES - Naveen Patnaik's decision to drop the BJP is hardly simple

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By Mukul Kesavan
  • Published 30.04.09

On April 23, NDTV aired an interview with Naveen Patnaik in which the chief minister of Orissa was categorical that he had broken with the Bharatiya Janata Party because of its involvement in, and endorsement of, anti-Christian violence in Kandhamal. He spoke of the BJP’s nomination of Ashok Sahu, the Christian-baiting retired IPS officer as the BJP’s parliamentary candidate from Kandhamal, and Manoj Pradhan, the prime accused in the Kandhamal killings and arson from the G. Udaygiri assembly seat, as appalling signals from a national party.

Patnaik ruled out allying with the BJP after the Lok Sabha elections. On the face of it, this seemed as secular and ideologically premised a position as you might want to see.The problem with this conclusion is that Patnaik had cohabited happily with the BJP for a decade. What price, then, this spasm of principled politics?

The realpolitik answer is that Patnaik made his decision to go it alone not because of Kandhamal, nor immediately after the anti-Christian violence there; he decided to break with the BJP after his party handily won local elections in Orissa despite contesting them on its own. Rather than be beholden to an 800-pound gorilla as coalition partner in the state assembly, he began to calculate that it might be feasible to go it alone.

This is certainly the BJP’s view. Chandan Mitra, editor and member of parliament who was the the BJP’s point man in Orissa, said in the course of a news show that he thought the Congress would gain seats in Orissa because the votes cast for the Biju Janata Dal and the BJP would be divided. He said that he had explained this to Patnaik, but the chief minister had embraced the delusion that the BJD could win a legislative majority without a coalition. Sudheendra Kulkarni, another spokesperson for the BJP, declared that Patnaik’s stated critique of the BJP was a sham; behind the broken alliance lay electoral opportunism. Kulkarni went so far as to predict that if the BJD fell short of a majority in the assembly, Patnaik would return to the BJP asking for support.

The BJP’s cynicism can be put down to the resentment of a spurned suitor, but Patnaik’s new scruples raise general questions about how political decisions are historically explained. Colonial Indian history went through a phase where a group of scholars loosely associated with Cambridge tried to explain all political history, including the anti-colonial struggle, in terms of strict self-interest. Thus, we had nationalism boiled down to networks of patrons and clients and the great and the good of nationalist politics described as ‘contractors’ and ‘sub-contractors’ by historians influenced by Sir Lewis Namier’s rigorous but reductive view of political action.

Coalition politics in India is probably the perfect subject for Namierite explanation because of the apparent ideological shiftlessness of most Indian parties and the alacrity with which they switch sides. So it isn’t surprising that Patnaik’s break with the BJP has been understood as political calculation, not only by the BJP but by commentators in general.

This consensus simplifies and coarsens our understanding of the breakdown of the BJP-BJD alliance in particular and political realignments in general. In India, as elsewhere, large ideas set boundaries and limits on the working of self-interest, just as self-interest or the Namierite pursuit of power and political office often reins in the free play of ideological belief.

Naveen Patnaik, despite his metropolitan origins, is a provincial politician. He has, therefore, two priorities: first, a political alliance that allows him to hold office in his province and, two, a working relationship with parties or coalitions likely to hold power at the Centre so that the federal transfer of resources, on which state governments are so dependent, happens frictionlessly.

In the light of these two imperatives, his durable relationship with the BJP is easy to understand. Given that the Congress is his principal rival for provincial power in Orissa, an alliance with that party was out of the question. That left the BJP and the coalition it led, the National Democratic Alliance. For the first few years of the BJD-BJP alliance, the NDA controlled the Central government and Patnaik’s party was the senior partner in Orissa. The victory of the United Progressive Alliance in 2004 left the alliance intact for nearly the whole term of the present Congress-led government: given the Congress’s provincial ambitions, there wasn’t much room for Patnaik to manoeuvre in.

The main reason why Patnaik’s declared revulsion at the BJP’s communal politicking during and after the violence in Kandhamal is met with scepticism is that his pluralist, secular conscience seemed to have been hibernating during the Gujarat pogrom in 2002. And this is reasonable: horrible though Kandhamal was, it was, at best, Gujarat in miniature. So why was Patnaik straining at a gnat, having swallowed the camel?

There’s a straightforward answer to that question. For Patnaik, the pogrom of 2002 happened elsewhere. Any taint by association on account of the BJD’s membership of the NDA could be explained away by saying that the agenda and the doings of BJP satraps were the responsibility of that party alone. This was the position taken by Chandrababu Naidu, by Mayavati and by Patnaik.

But Kandhamal was different: the violence in Kandhamal occurred in Orissa, in the BJD’s backyard. Patnaik and his spokesperson, Jay Panda, appeared on television day after day through late September and October, trying to defend the Orissa government’s response to the systematic assault on Christians. The discomfort of these urbane, Anglophone politicians as they tried to deflect the charge that they were complicit in the ethnic cleansing in Kandhamal because they were allied to the BJP was evident.

I suggest that this discomfort was born of real shock and revulsion. As the chief minister of Orissa, Patnaik had to own administrative responsibility for his government’s inability to prevent or limit Kandhamal’s ethnic cleansing. Nobody has ever accused Naveen Patnaik of being radical or of being any sort of ideologue, but he is the son of Biju Patnaik, a buccaneering cosmopolitan whose single greatest act of derring-do was air-lifting nationalists in Muslim majority Indonesia out of Dutch captivity. He’s also the writer Gita Mehta’s brother. It’s hard to fit the ethnic cleansing of Christians into this family profile.

Naveen Patnaik supped with the devil for many years till he discovered that the long spoon had shrunk. The crucial thing to remember here is that there was no political or electoral downside to his alliance with the BJP even after the Kandhamal violence. Orissa is an overwhelmingly Hindu state. Kandhamal’s large Christian population is an exception; as a rule, minorities make up a tiny fraction of Orissa’s population. The alienation of minorities wouldn’t have diminished the BJD’s electoral base in any significant way.

Breaking with the BJP, on the other hand, has obvious political costs for the BJD. Dividing the vote hands the Congress an immediate advantage. Despite the BJD’s victory in local elections, there is a real possibility that Patnaik’s party might fall short of a legislative majority in the state elections. The nebulous third front with which the BJD is now allied is unlikely to form the next Central government and the prospect of going to the BJP, cap in hand, should the NDA form a government in Delhi, can’t be attractive.

So by going it alone, Naveen Patnaik rolled the dice. His gamble was based partly on his calculation that he could win on his own; but it was also prompted by his conviction that he couldn’t live with a party that had brought to Orissa its strategy of Hindu consolidation through violence. Had he not been revolted by the tragedy in Kandhamal, there was no reason for him to risk the stability of a tried and tested alliance. Patnaik’s secular or pluralist convictions might not have been a sufficient condition for this parting of ways, but they were a necessary condition for it to happen.

The secular idea of India into which Naveen Patnaik was socialized is now vigorously challenged by Hindutva, but it remains the default orientation in Indian politics. It has to be publicly repudiated by those who disagree with it. Politicians and intellectuals, who make a mid-life journey to the Hindu right, are often seen, perhaps unfairly, to be entering into a Faustian compact, because political virtue is so intimately associated with pluralism. Patnaik’s break with the BJP in the wake of Kandhamal was prompted by many considerations; one of them was that he didn’t want the world to believe that he had gone over to the dark side.