Chief Minister and BJD chieftain Naveen Patnaik is ubiquitous these days across Odisha. Be it the rally he addresses or new projects he inaugurates, it’s the one man spectacle. Patnaik has led the BJD in power without hitches for 19 years on a trot. Yet, there is hardly an ounce of anti-incumbency sentiment, something natural for any government that has ruled for so long.
What’s startling is that the turnout at each of Naveen’s rallies is getting stronger by the day. The days of some 20,000-30,000 people queuing up to catch a glimpse of their revered leader are passé. Now, Patnaik commands a massive gathering of over one lakh at every rally. The recent Kendrapara rally where Naveen disbursed cash awards to landless workers – a step unprecedented in the country, was attended by two lakh farmers. He had a turnout of comparable scale at previous two rallies when cash was directly credited to over 12 lakh farmers under Krushak Assistance for Livelihood & Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme. For Naveen, connecting with the crowd is an effortless exercise these days. The moment he mumbles something in Odia, people vent out applause and smile back at him.
Sources within the BJD confess their leader has systematically sidetracked all MLAs within the party. Though party leaders share the dais with the chief minister at public functions, none hogs the limelight that he does. Some aver it’s a carefully nurtured strategy ahead of the polls. People are mesmerised by Naveen Patnaik. He’s the most towering leader in state politics today. No one quite matches up to him in optics or delivery. Only Brand Naveen sells. He’s the reason why BJD is romping home election after election. And, each time with a more resounding mandate. Even the huge, life-size cut-outs of BJD’s placards and posters that dot the city only figure Naveen’s image and conch, the party symbol. This is the antithesis of other party campaigns of Congress or BJD where both national and state leaders of consequence share the banner space.
There’s yet another side to the branding story. With polls round the corner, the lobbying for grabbing tickets has intensified. If BJD insiders are to be believed, there are three or more aspirants for each constituency. And, Naveen who is believed to go for a major overhaul in candidates’ selection for the 2019 polls doesn’t want any heartburn among the fresh contenders. Perhaps, this explains why he’s not according much importance to the sitting MLAs in rallies and party focused campaigns.
Naveen wary of the people’s mood has also taken a strong anti-Centre stance before the polls. His government has rebuffed Ayushman Bharat and has voiced reservations to the recently announced PM-KISAN programme. While the BJD’s Biju Swathya Kalyan Yojana is seen as an antidote to Ayushman Bharat, the state’s KALIA scheme eminently betters the PM-KISAN. The BJD supremo is also intermittently flagging his party’s pet issues against the Centre like award of special category status tag for Odisha state and Mahanadi riparian deadlock with Chhattisgarh. Brand Naveen has jerked into the top gear and the BJD is riding piggyback on his charisma to steamroll opponents at the next polls.