By Nageshwar Patnaik in Bhubaneswar, August 21, 2023: Once dismissed by critics as a novice, Odisha Chief Minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik has not only shown shrewdness and ruthlessness in dealing with political parties but also the imagination of the people with his “clean image”.

Not surprisingly, Naveen last month became the second longest serving chief minister in the country by breaking the record set by former West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu as the second longest-serving Chief Minister in India. Naveen may carve out a niche for himself as the longest-serving CM by-passing Pawan Kumar Chamling, the former CM of Sikkim, who held the position for an impressive 24 years and 166 days, if the former wins the 2024 assembly polls.

A man who was thrust into the hurly-burly of politics after the death of his legendary father and former chief minister, Biju Patnaik, Naveen has come a long way to emerge as the most popular CM in the country. He contested the assembly electionKnown to be ideologically neutral, Naveen has effortlessly transformed himself into a popular political leader with a messianic zeal to transform the state by maintaining equal distance from the country’s two leading parties, BJP and Congress,s in 2000 and ever since he has never looked back. Naveen successfully led a coalition government with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in 2000.

He was sworn in as the 14th CM of Odisha on March 5, 2000 when the 1999 cyclone wrecked havoc in Odisha and the Congress government failed to handle the calamity. More than 10,000 people died. The National Democratic Alliance, in which BJD was a partner, came to power in 2004. Though the NDA lost the general election in the 2004, it did not adversely affect Naveen’s electoral prospects in Odisha.

In the run-up to the 2009 national polls, the BJD walked out of the NDA due to communal violence in Kandhamal. Perhaps, there was also a fear that the BJP would outgrow the BJD, a phenomenon seen more recently in states such as Maharashtra and Bihar.

Despite facing such challenges, Naveen Patnaik remains incredibly popular in the state of Odisha. In subsequent Assembly elections, he has effortlessly won over 100 out of 147 seats consecutively, seemingly unaffected by the anti-incumbency factor. His soft-spoken nature and reputation as an anti-corruption crusader have contributed to his electoral success. Under his leadership, the BJD has not suffered any electoral defeats, whether in Lok Sabha, Assembly, or panchayat elections. Patnaik’s winning streak continues ever since.

Known to be ideologically neutral, Naveen has effortlessly transformed himself into a popular political leader with a messianic zeal to transform the state by maintaining equal distance from the country’s two leading parties, BJP and Congress. Naveen’s strategy is clear that if he joins the opposition ranks, he would invite the ruling BJP’s wrath. At the same time, if he once again aligns with the BJP, it would open up the opposition space in Odisha for the Congress.

However, some of his recent actions have given the ammunitions to experts and other politician accusing him of leading the BJP’s B-party. The suave satrap has more often than not bailed out the BJP-led NDA in the past when Parliament saw contentious issues such as a no-trust motion, with his party staging a walkout. But by rallying behind the BJP in Parliament last week, Naveen appears to have reinforced the perception that he would not embrace the “I.N.D.I.A” – the opposition front to put a break on the Modi juggernaut. Naveen-led BJD also voted in favour of Modi government’s push to pass the Delhi Services Bill.

The quiet septuagenarian leader always gave priority to his political interest by aligning with the power-that-be at the Centre. The latest move to back the Modi government in the parliament is yet another instance of his political pragmatism which he has been performing since he took over the state.

In a bid for the balancing act, Naveen skipped the inauguration of the new Parliament building by Modi. But at the same time, while opposition parties boycotted the inauguration, saying the President should have done the honours, the BJD patriarch sent its 21 MPs to the ceremony. Also, last month Patnaik had called on Modi as part of a “courtesy meeting” and later told journalists that the BJD would go it alone in the national polls “as it always has”.

The follow up meeting of union home minister Amit Shah and Naveen Patnaik in Bhubaneswar recently and the former’s praise to the CM has reinforced the hidden bonhomie between the two parties. These moves prompted senior Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader Derek O’Brien accusing Naveen of siding with fascism, saying BJD was unofficially with the BJP. “Patnaik will not speak up about the treacherous situation in Manipur or the burning of 250 churches there,” O’Brien said.

Naveen definitely does not want to invite the wrath of BJP with many leaders of other Opposition parties have been crying foul following raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED). One thing is clear that as a strategy, Naveen will continue to build good rapport with the party in power at the centre but not align with it for electoral purpose. At the same time, he will not join hands with the opposition bloc as the Congress, which is one of the main constituent party still remains its number two rival.

BJP may not be very serious to unseat Naveen as he could come handy in case the NDA falls short of the magical halfway mark in the upcoming Lok Sabha polls. The poll outcome is expected to reshape BJD’s equation with BJP and Congress. But one thing is clear in Naveen’s mind that his party must retain power and create a historic record of the longest serving CM in the country.

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