On a high

Upbeat after the BJP-BJD split, Naveen Patnaik is haunted by the ghosts of Kandhamal

Amit Sengupta Bhubaneswar

The low-profile capital of Orissa is blooming. Not only is it covered with a splendour of green, an imaginative female bureaucrat has transformed the visual landscape. Involving folk artists, she has converted Bhubaneswar into a creative gallery of exquisite folk art, with its streets, walls, government buildings, residences, parks, pavements, even garbage stations and water tanks, adorned with the meticulous craft of the state's incredible ancient heritage. So, memory and meaning move in synthesis in this beautiful folk tradition, untouched by the sleazy underbelly of politics, coalitions and midnight separations.

The bitter divorce between the BJP-BJD (Biju Janata Dal), despite being predictable, came as a jolt to the Hindutva party, still gloating over the massive Kandhamal violence unleashed by the VHP. Local observers argue that BJP's negotiator, journalist Chandan Mitra, was "too much of a lightweight", and hence, not even a compromise deal could be clinched. CPM leader Sitaram Yechury, apparently, played a crucial role in breaking the alliance, positing a future role to the BJD at the Centre. This has basically pleased the secularists -- "Thank god, the BJD is out of the communal fascist clutches".

Ironically, the BJD led by Naveen Patnaik, son of the legendary Biju Patnaik, is on a high after ditching the BJP. If politics is a game of possibilities and perception, then the public perception is backing Naveen Patnaik. There is almost a swing in his favour. He has consolidated his political base. The virtual absence of a credible Congress leadership, and the discredited image of JB Patnaik, former Congress chief minister, has helped Patnaik score high. "There is no leader worth his stature in Orissa," is the general refrain. "And he is Biju Babu's son. He will complete his unfinished work."

Biju Babu's legacy has been inherited by his son, who initially held the top job without even knowing how to speak Oriya. "That does not matter," says a migrant dhaba worker in Puri. "He has compensated by doing good work for the poor, and that counts."

Cynics argue that this political perception is more an illusion than a concrete reality. Everyone seems to see only the rainbow, even while the dark side of the moon is currently invisible. Much of his achievements are mythical, pure propaganda, they say.

In rural areas, Patnaik is being hailed for distributing cheap rice. Farmers have apparently also benefitted from better roads, electricity and water supply, and regulated remuneration for their agricultural produce. In urban areas, people cite better roads, electricity, infrastructure and improved law and order as the positives. "Earlier, girls would not dare to walk on the streets after dark. Not anymore," says Prashant Naik, a driver. That he, a graduate and educated, like thousands on the margins in this poor state, are still jobless or doing low-paying jobs, makes little difference. An orthodox Brahmin, Prashant will vote for Patnaik and so will his family in his village. "He will win both assembly and Lok Sabha elections," he says.

However, the ghosts of Kandhamal continue to haunt Naveen Patnaik, who tacitly turned blind even as the BJP-VHP led by Pravin Togadia went berserk - a nun was gang-raped in front of the police, people were burnt alive, churches desecrated and homes ravaged, and 50,000 people became refugees. Even to this day, 20,000 tribals and poor are reportedly displaced. This was a total administrative collapse in favour of the Hindutva forces.

Now, as Naveen Patnaik showcases his picture on the BJD manifesto with a caption: "Every bone in my body is secular" - not all secularists are ready to believe him. "He jumps ship from the communal Right to the Official Left, and suddenly turns secular - how?" asks an anti-Posco activist. "Have we forgotten the murder of adivasis in Kalinganagar? And, how he has unleashed big business and MNCs in tribal areas to displace thousands of tribals, farmers and the poor, destroying precious economic zones, pampering the rich?"

The Congress is elated because the alliance has broken and, hence will the vote share. The Congress has always scored 30 per cent plus votes in Orissa, except in 1972. The Congress vote share in 2000 assembly polls was 33.78 per cent (only 26 seats), which increased to 34.8 per cent in 2004 when it got 38 seats. In contrast, the BJD secured 29.40 per cent in 2000 and 27.36 per cent in 2004, and yet won 68 and 61 seats respectively. This was because its alliance partner, the BJP, cornered 18.2 per cent votes in 2000 and 17.1 per cent in 2004, while the party won 38 and 32 seats. However, how this will translate in the Lok Sabha polls remains a mystery.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: April 2009