The combined Opposition understandably felt cheated. “The BJD is shooting itself in the foot by voting for the NDA candidate when NDA has declared its goal is to defeat Naveen Patnaik’s party,” tweeted P Chidambaram, clearly disappointed and peeved at the BJD’s decision to vote for Harivansh in the election for the post of Deputy Chairperson of Rajya Sabha on Thursday.
But Naveen knew what he was doing. His sharp political instincts convinced him that it would be suicidal for him to go with any Opposition grouping that has the Congress in it. Always quick to size up a situation, he has obviously decided that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose by aligning with the Congress, which remains his enemy No. 1 in Odisha despite the BJP’s efforts to position itself as his main challenger in 2019.
It was not an easy decision by any means. For one thing, open support for the BJP candidate — significantly, it did not abstain as some others did — would open the rhetoric of ‘equi-distance from the BJP and Congress’, which has served the party so well since 2014, to public ridicule. For another, it put to question the BJD’s commitment to secularism since it had snapped ties with the BJP just ahead of the 2009 elections citing the ‘communal agenda’ allegedly pursued by the Saffron party leading to an anti-Christian pogrom in Kandhamal.
BJD supporting the NDA candidate for #RajyaSabhaDeputyChairman election isn't surprising at all, that's what allies are supposed to do. It's a deal to stop CBI from exposing the BJD's misdeeds.
This strengthens the ongoing rumors of seat sharing discussions between BJP & BJD.
— Niranjan Patnaik (@NPatnaikOdisha) August 9, 2018
Had the party abstained from voting on Thursday, things would have been different. But by openly voting for a candidate fielded by the BJP, the BJD denied itself the luxury of parroting its ‘equi-distant’ jumla a little longer. The party’s bid to rationalise the decision saying it had voted for the JD(U), which it said has the same ideological origins and moorings as the BJD, and not the BJP fooled no one. In the process, it left those who saw Naveen as the great secular bulwark against the onslaught of BJP in Odisha high and dry.
Talk of an electoral understanding between the two erstwhile alliance partners may be a little premature at the moment. For all one knows, Naveen may never come to the NDA stable ever again, either before or after the 2019 election.
But ever since Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, Naveen has made it abundantly clear that he is wary of being seen in the company of the Congress. Not only has he supported the NDA government on key decisions like demonetisation, GST and surgical strike and helped it pass crucial legislation in Parliament, he has also sided, openly or covertly, with the Modi government every time there has been a show of strength between the NDA and the Opposition in recent times.
First, the BJD voted for Ramnath Kovind, the NDA candidate, in the presidential election last year. It then skipped the gathering of Opposition leaders in Bengaluru on the occasion of the swearing in of HD Kumaraswamy as Chief Minister of Karnataka in May. The BJD followed it up with walking out of the House even before the debate began on the no confidence motion against the Modi government moved by the TDP last month and then batting for the ruling dispensation on the NRC issue in Assam.
The desire not be seen in the Congress camp, however, doesn’t fully explain the BJD’s decision to cast its lot with the BJP, a party that is engaged in a fierce battle of attrition with it in the run-up to the 2019 elections. As Odisha Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik alleges, the fear of the CBI had to do a lot with the BJD’s decision to “sleep with the enemy”.
The CBI is also investigating the multi-thousand crore chit find scam, in which many BJD leaders and state officials have been questioned. Then there is the Damocles sword of a possible CBI inquiry into the mega mining scam, allegedly worth at least Rs 60,000 crore according to the Justice MB Shah Commission of Inquiry that probed the scam and strongly recommended a CBI inquiry.
Naveen’s decision to back the Modi government even at the risk of raising questions about his secular credentials thus is more a result of realpolitik than any ideological positioning.
On its part, the BJP appears to have read the writing on the wall and realised that for all its daily tirade against the Naveen Patnaik government, it would be a stiff task to unseat the BJD leader in 2019. Hence, it makes eminent political sense for the party to follow the dictum ‘if you can’t beat them, join them’ and keep the door ajar for possible post-poll support in case of a hung Parliament.