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Alliance issue: The Odisha dilemma

LiveMint logoLiveMint 14-05-2014 Chitrangada Choudhury Aga

On 25 April, days after voting for 147 Assembly and 21 Lok Sabha seats ended in Odisha, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) state president K. V. Singh Deo dramatically announced at a press conference that the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) would split after 16 May, counting day. Rebel members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) from the party would join hands with BJP MLAs to form the next government in the state, he said, keeping chief minister Naveen Patnaik out.

The statement was predictably rubbished by BJD leaders.

Last week, when the Supreme Court ordered that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe 44 financial companies allegedly involved in the state’s `4500 crore chit fund scam, state BJP leaders demanded that CBI must also investigate the role of Patnaik and other BJD leaders in the scam. The party’s state unit has also been demanding a CBI probe into the state’s mammoth illegal mining scam, outlined by the Justice M. B. Shah Commission in 2013. In his Odisha election rallies in early April, BJP president Rajnath Singh had promised that the scams would be probed if a BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power.

And today, even as national leaders of the BJP, in the warmth of exit polls that predict the party’s return to power at the centre, say all parties including regional players such as the BJD are welcome to join the NDA, the state unit continues to be cold to the idea.

After all, state BJP leaders have strongly attacked the BJD, and Patnaik in particular, in past months, with an eye on becoming the principal opposition force in Odisha in place of the moribund Congress. An Odisha BJP candidate in the Lok Sabha elections said the party would have to wait and see how the numbers play out on 16 May: “In my view, the BJD should be our last option.”

Allies for 14 years, the BJP and BJD had a bitter break-up on the eve of the April 2009 elections over the issue of seat-sharing, as well as the anti-Christian violence, by Hindu right-wing groups and mobs, that swept Kandhamal in 2008. While the move paid off handsomely for Patnaik, with the BJD winning 107 Assembly and 14 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP took just six Assembly seats and could not win a single parliamentary seat.

The memory of the BJD dumping it at the last minute still smarts the BJP.

“It was Naveen Patnaik who has consistently called us communal and untouchable...we had never said he is untouchable,” said Suresh Pujari, a senior BJP leader and Lok Sabha candidate from Sambalpur, adding acerbically, “Does a party go from being communal to secular depending on who wins how many seats?”

Pujari asserted that irrespective of what national compulsions demanded in the coming days, a state-level alliance between the two parties is “impossible”.

Last week, BJD vice-president and Rajya Sabha MP Kalpataru Das had said pretty much the same thin—that a BJD-BJP alliance was out of the question because it would affect the BJD’s future electoral prospects in Odisha, a risk the regional party could not afford to take.

At the same time, party leaders concede that they need friends at the centre to act on the state government’s long-standing demands. These include greater financial allocations for irrigation and infrastructure projects, dedicated development packages for the western tribal areas, change in royalty and tax policies to deliver a larger share of mining revenue, and 25% free power to the state from Odisha-based thermal power plants.

The BJP and BJD’s recent attacks on each other had emanated from the very top. In an interview to Doordarshan in April, Patnaik had said that he did not think Narendra Modi was fit to be India’s Prime Minister. In his April rallies in Odisha, Modi had launched a frontal attack on Patnaik, chief minister since 2000, saying he wondered how the state’s electorate could give an inept government so many chances. 16 May will reveal if all that was just campaign rhetoric.

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