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Admitting that the Bharatiya Janata Party has come out stronger from the monsoon session of Parliament, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader Bhartruhari Mahtab said his party’s support for the Janata Dal(U) candidate in the election for the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman does not mean it is a support for the BJP. In an interview to Manish Anand, Mahtab stressed that the saffron party was not invincible. Arguing that the BJD provides “constructive opposition,” Mahtab noted that the next eight months would shape up the course of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections even while emerging political discourses around personalities give an edge to the BJP.
What sense do you make out of the first no-confidence motion against the Narendra Modi government in which the BJD didn’t participate?
It was relating to the posturing of the BJP and the Congress-led alliances for 2019. The no-confidence motion that was moved in the second half of the budget session was accepted on the first day (of the monsoon session) for deliberations which none of the parties comprehended. So, I’ve heard from leaders of some parties asking how it happened. Ultimately, we didn’t take part in the process. Our stated position has been that neither the 10 years of the UPA nor the four years of the NDA have been beneficial in any way to Odisha. It was a pointless exercise.... The result was known to everyone.
The BJP-led NDA had the numbers. Our participation in the debate would have been a fruitless exercise. Therefore, we walked out. After the motion was defeated, the NDA created an impression that they’re invincible. Actually, they aren’t.But the BJD actually voted for NDA nominee Harivansh Narayan Singh in the election for the Rajya Sabha Deputy Chairman In the last four years, the BJP-led NDA had been trying to push many Bills as money Bills because they don’t have the strength and adequate support. But when this election for the deputy chairperson was declared, the NDA did its homework well though the Congress-led alliance had started the preparation early. We supported the JD(U) candidate. From the beginning, our effort was for a consensus candidate. Our attempt was not to have election.
Do you sense an effective Opposition unity taking shape against the BJP in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections?
There are eight months more for the general elections. Many things may happen in between. This reminds me of HD Deve Gowda’s statement who had said that those who had come on the platform during the oath-taking ceremony may not form a morcha to fight against the BJP. He’s an experienced public figure. In the next eight months, many things may happen... But the term mahagathbandhan has to be tested first in Uttar Pradesh.
Do you think that the Congress is currently in a position to lead a united Opposition against the BJP?
I’ll put it in a different way. Today most of the political parties are personality driven, and it helps the BJP if the elections for 2019 is held on personality. The Congress itself is both a personality and family led party, and that’s why the outfit is failing at the national level. The alternative to personality-led elections is ideology-led elections. If certain political parties, and that is a big ‘if’, come together on ideologies, then only one can counter personality-led campaigns. ...What I find in 2018 is that the most of the political parties are personality oriented. And that’s the advantage of Narendra Modi.
But you said that the BJP isn’t invincible.
To make it more clear, let’s see what happens in Maharashtra. The BJP during the last four years has formed governments in various states through support from others, including the North-east and Maharashtra. They couldn’t form a government in Karnataka. Where’s the BJP in Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu? Even in Gujarat, where there was a multi-cornered contest, the NCP candidates were the reason for the defeat of the Congress in certain seats and the margin of votes was quite les in 10-15 seats.
The BJD continues to be a unique political outfit which bails out the BJP in Parliament even while it remains in a competitive politics with the saffron outfit in Odisha so much so that you’re loosely said to be NDA Plus. What do you have to say on this?
I cannot explain the perception people have about our party, but the fact is that the Congress withdrew in the last panchayat elections and gave space to the BJP. The non-BJD votes which used to be divided between the Congress and BJP got consolidated. The Congress was nowhere during the campaigning in the panchayat polls. I think that will not happen in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. But we’re far ahead of the BJP on the ground both in the state and general elections. In Parliament, we don’t oppose the government for the sake of opposition. Our first priority is development of Odisha. We provide constructive opposition. We support the government on issues which are good for India and our state.
How do you assess the performance of the Modi government on the economic front?
Two things stand out among number of steps this government has taken. During the last four years, adequate measures have been taken to curb black money and also to crack down against the flow of black money. The laws enacted in the last four years have started giving results and in another year or two, the country will benefit. The second aspect for which I will give credit to this government is that it built a system of collective wisdom to implement the GST. That state chief ministers are taking
unanimous decisions is something which is great. But ultimately, the result will be felt after the completion of five years of the implementation of the GST.
There are incidents like mob lynching in the name of protection of cows. What you’ve to say on this?
The first lynching by cow vigilantes which drew national attention was in 1999 in Manoharpur of Odisha when there was a Congress government in the state after which the chief minister was changed. Graham Staines along with his two children were burnt to death. The main culprit, Dara Singh, was from Uttar Pradesh. Cow vigilantism and mob lynching are north Indian phenomena. But it’s a heinous crime and strong action needs to be taken. Mob violence needs to be dealt with full force, and if there’s necessity to amend the IPC and CrPC that also needs to be done.
Now that four years have gone by since the Planning Commission was replaced by NITI Aayog, how do you evaluate Narendra Modi’s decision?
I’m yet to understand what NITI Aayog is actually doing. Is it an advisory body or is it an extended organ of the PMO or a think tank? To me, I think it’s all of these put together. Initially, the role of the Planning Commission was very specific, which should have been the ideal role to maintain. But slowly it acquired certain powers which should have been with the Finance Ministry, which led to other problems. The Constitution provides that states lagging behind for historic reasons need to be supported so that they can come on a par with developed states. This should have been the objective of the Union government. How far NITI Aayog is doing this job is yet to be seen.
How is the BJD preparing for the 2019 state elections?
The BJD improved its seats in the Assembly from 103 in 2009 to 117 in 2014. The historic high in the Odisha Assembly was seen in 1990 when the Janata Dal won 123 seats. The BJD will be aiming to go past the historic high in the 2019 Assembly elections.