After two decades in politics, Naveen Patnaik remains an enigma in his own way. The popular Odisha leader who has won five consecutive Assembly elections for Biju Janata Dal (BJD), has always kept both his supporters and opponents on their toes.
He has once again thrown a political spanner by accommodating a BJP candidate for the biennial Rajya Sabha elections, even though the BJD has enough numbers in the Odisha Assembly to win all the three by-elections to the Upper House. This comes after the BJP had strongly attacked Naveen Patnaik this summer during the election campaign and had engineered many high-profile defections from the BJD. While picking two partymen, Patnaik announced support to former IAS officer Ashwini Vaishnav, who joined the saffron party just as he got the nomination the other day.
The chief minister was hitting several birds with one stone by backing Vaishnav. He was sending another message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, who is also the Union Home Minister, that he had no bitterness towards the BJP which dominates national politics, but lags behind in the coastal state. After campaign ended Patnaik had thanked the central government for its help in meeting the challenges posed by Cyclone Fani in May. Modi had reciprocated by praising Patnaik and also sending central assistance, both forgetting the bitter attacks against each other during the poll campaign.
Patnaik had taken a gamble by fielding six Rajya Sabha members of the party for the recent Lok Sabha and Assembly elections. Four of them won the contests while two lost. The Election Commission has announced by elections for three of the four vacant seats.
The BJP was grateful for the bonus seat, as it is working hard to bolster its numbers in the Rajya Sabha where the NDA does not have its own majority. The party recently engineered a split in the Telugu Desam Party (TDP), making four of its six Rajya Sabha members announce that they were joining the BJP. With Venkaiah Naidu, who had been a BJP stalwart before becoming the Vice-President of India and thus the ex-officio Chairman of the Rajya Sabha, approving the move of MPs from his home state Andhra Pradesh, the BJP got a significant boost in numbers. The BJP had fared very poorly in Andhra Pradesh in both the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, and is now targeting friend-turned enemy TDP to woo its MPs and MLAs.
Even though the BJD's strength comes down by one in the Rajya Sabha, Patnaik's signal elated the central leadership of the BJP, but caused dismay among state leaders. Its Odisha unit, which had pushed Congress to the third place in the polls, was hoping to build itself as the true alternative to Patnaik, so that in the next Assembly elections, there would be a BJP chief minister in the state. Patnaik has had an upper hand in the elections in 2004, 2009, 2014 and now in 2019. He had dissolved the Odisha Assembly in 2004, a year ahead of its full term ended, so that simultaneous elections could be held for Lok Sabha and Assembly in the state. Naturally, he was a major supporter of Modi at the recent all-party meeting called by the Prime Minister to discuss simultaneous elections.
There is also another reason for Patnaik's generosity. His advisers sensed that the BJP is all powerful and would continue to woo defectors from parties which were either opposed to it (like the TDP) or were neutral in the Parliament. Hence Patnaik, without being an official partner of the NDA, has extended an olive branch. Another regional leader who has been soft towards Modi is Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy of Andhra Pradesh, whose party swept the Assembly and Lok Sabha seats of the southern state. Now, BJP's attention is focussed on splitting the Rajya Sabha members of parties like Trinamool Congress and Telangana Rashtra Samithi, which have a significant presence in the Rajya Sabha, apart from the Congress.
Another long-term chief minister known for smart tightrope walking is Nitish Kumar of Bihar, who has made smart moves ever since he became the CM in 2005. He has sided with BJP in consecutive elections, but went against Narendra Modi in 2015, and yet won in a grand tie-up with the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Congress. Yet he abandoned the alliance and moved back to the BJP fold in 2017. But now he has not nominated any minister for the Modi cabinet and his political moves are being watched ahead of the Bihar assembly elections in the winter of 2020.