Wednesday was an eventful day in Odisha politics. It started with two eminent public figures – Editor of ‘Sambad’ and Ama Odisha President President Soumya Ranjan Patnaik and Founder of KIIT-KISS Achyuta Samanta – joining the ruling party in the morning. In a feat remarkable in the annals of politics in the state, both of them were nominated as BJD candidates for two of three Rajya Sabha seats set to fall vacant on April 3 by evening. Veteran film personality and former minister Prasanta Nanda made up the triumvirate.
The nomination of Mr. Patnaik and Mr. Samanta left several aspirants from within the party disappointed. While Patnaik’s induction and nomination was in the air for quite some time now, it was the roping in of Mr. Samanta followed by his immediate nomination to the Upper House that surprised many, primarily because he didn’t fit the description of a ‘political person’ in the context of what Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had said recently. Asked about his party candidates for the Rajya Sabha on his return from New Delhi on February 25, the BJD supremo had said they would be political persons. Taking the supremo’s words seriously, several leaders from within the party had started nursing ambitions of becoming a member of the House of Elders and had begun discreet lobbying for it. But Mr. Samanta turned out to be the dark horse.
The decision to nominate two rank outsiders ignoring party seniors proved that Naveen is now confident enough to set in motion his game plan for the 2019 elections without being constrained by apprehensions of resentment, if not outright revolt, from within the ranks. And this confidence has come from the massive win in the much hyped Bijepur by-election last month. There were many in the BJD – and not just aspirants for a party ticket – who were skeptical about the wisdom of roping in Rita Sahu, the widow of three-time MLA Subal Sahu whose untimely demise necessitated the by-election, and nominating her as the BJD candidate from the constituency. But in the end, Rita registered a resounding win with a margin of over 42, 000 votes, proving the correctness of Naveen’s decision in the process. Though Wednesday’s decision must have left several BJD old timers disheartened – and perhaps not a little angry – the chances of that coming out into the open are remote, what with the simultaneous elections to the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabha set to take place in a year’s time.
For reasons that are all too obvious, it is the induction of Soumya Ranjan that has invited the maximum attention. After all, the ‘Sambad’ Editor had been a bitter critic of the Naveen Patnaik dispensation and launched scathing attacks on the state government and the BJD from multiple fronts till recently. For well over a year and half, he was an integral part of the agitations against the government by farmers, victims of chit fund companies, crusaders of Odia language and anti-liquor outfits. His crossing over to the ‘enemy camp’ has left all these people high and dry and feeling cheated.
But for Mr. Patnaik, the primary concern was how to get back to political relevance after years in the wilderness. Having done his share of party hopping, he had tried his hand at forming a party of his own before the last elections in 2014. He fielded candidates, including himself, in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, but drew a blank. This must have convinced him that he needed the backing of a major party to return to the political mainstream. He couldn’t have gone to the Congress since he had been expelled from the party. Having had a taste of the BJP in the 1990s, he perhaps knew he didn’t have much of a future there either. That left only the BJD, which remains the preeminent political force in the state.
As for Naveen, the fact that Soumya Ranjan owns the biggest media conglomerate in the state that includes the No. 1 Odia daily ‘Sambad’ and leading TV news channel Kanak TV must have weighed heavily while taking the decision to rope him into the BJD and giving him a Rajya Sabha ticket. The support of a major media house had become important for Naveen after the bitter fall-out with Baijayant Jay Panda, whose family owns OTV, Odisha’s No. 1 news channel. It was thus a marriage of convenience that suited both sides well.
In the case of Mr. Samanta, his problems with NGT over allegations of land grab had made it imperative for him to be on the right side of the state government. He too owns a TV channel (Kalinga TV), though not a patch on OTV. The major consideration in his case appears to be his image of a philanthropist and a messiah of the tribals. He runs KISS, arguably the largest residential school for tribal children in the world with a strength of around 25, 000. Besides, his educational empire consists of KIIT, the largest engineering college in the private sector, KIMS, the medical college and several other smaller institutions. The induction of Samanta thus made eminent sense for Naveen.
As of now, Naveen appears to be holding all the aces as far as the coming elections are concerned. With the Congress in a moribund state, it is the BJP that has emerged as the only challenge for him. But Bijepur proved that in his 20 years in politics, Naveen has acquired and perfected an ability to outsmart and outwit his opponents in an electoral battle. Even with the formidable monetary and organizational resources at its disposal and the vote gathering abilities of Narendra Modi, the BJP would find that dislodging Naveen from power is a lot tougher than it was in the case of Manik Sarkar recently or Tarun Gogoi earlier.