Naveen plays long innings, BJP lets loose heavy hitters

The 5km Naveen Patnaik roadshow in Bhubaneswar was a festive affair that reflected the reclusive politician’s inexplicable popularity; even children wore Naveen masks...
Naveen plays long innings, BJP lets loose  heavy hitters

It began with the gods. During festivals, the idols are brought out of their alcoves and displayed in divine glory to devotees, their sacred bodies covered in gilt-edged garments sewn with gold thread, and smothered with jewels and gilded crowns. This pomp symbolises ultimate power. Then came the overdressed monarch’s turn, passing in stately splendour through lines of awestruck citizens. The modern monarchs, politicians, have a word for it: the roadshow. Elections are roadshow time. Modi loves them. Amit Shah loves them. So does Rahul, Stalin and Mamata. Not so sure about the reticent Naveen Patnaik, who has governed whole generation of Odias; a distant but benevolent person who is rarely seen or heard, but seems to have miraculously satisfied his subjects. But demanding times demand different timings.

The 5km Patnaik roadshow in Bhubaneswar was a festive affair that reflected the reclusive politician’s inexplicable popularity; even children wore Naveen masks. And surprise! Pandian masks too! It is perhaps a vindication of his mystique — Patnaik is known for pulling off the unexplainable — that Pandian has become as pervasive in the voter’s mind as hockey in a young Odia’s consciousness.

Back to the roadshow. The pneumatics of politics begins when the automated lid atop the Rath — it was Andhra legend NT Rama Rao who first started the Rath trend in 1984 — begins to ascend through the hatch slowly. Naveen Patnaik’s smooth, unlined face spotlit with a golden glow slowly rises up with intergalactic grace. The crowd roars his name and Patnaik, now on the brink of his sixth term, waves back. At 77 years of age, there are no signs of serious ill-health, although a fragile evanescence backlights his form. “Are you well?” he inquires softly and the crowd answers in the affirmative, in one voice. “Do you like BJD?” The answer is the same. “Do you like me?” The answer again is the same, but louder.

Patnaik smiles inwardly, as if he is secretly pleased by something only he knows; a secret that goes beyond the public adulation of 25 years. The roadsides are crammed with people; men, women and children. It is hot and humid in Bhubaneswar. Families have stepped out of their homes, and are filming the roadshow on their cellphones. Fireworks tattoo the sky.

Bhubaneswar mayor Sulochana Das is walking around with folded hands, she is evidently popular since a child, unbidden bends down to touch her feet. Emotion and theatrics is the leitmotif of the hour. A middle-aged woman and her daughter can’t seem to take their eyes off Patnaik. The mother has just turned 52.

“You’ve spent most of your youth during Patnaik’s chief ministership. Who will you vote for this time?” “Naveen of course.” “Why is that?” “In 24 years his popularity graph has gone up at a 45 degree angle.” “Whats so special about him ?” “Honesty,” is her reply.

The BJP may be levelling corruption charges, but Patnaik’s starched kurta remains pristine white. But the BJP is all out to slash the chief minister’s long-serving PS and now BJD politician, Karthikeyan Pandian. They play the trope of the Tamil outsider looting the state and trampling Odia pride; it’s an indirect attack on the CM. Salepur MLA and actor Arindam Roy emphatically cries, “We don’t want Tamil sasan, we want Odia sasan. This Tamilian will loot our state.” He is referring to Pandian.

But Pandian seems unruffled by all the vitriol. His answer to the BJP is BJD’s double engine: two conches, the party symbol, to represent wins in the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

At Khordha, a half-an-hour drive from Bhubaneswar, the mood is festive. People are being entertained by artistes and videos waiting for the Boss to get there. A vast majority are women: the government’s largesse towards SHGs have yielded fruit for years. The BJD seems to have cracked the formula that politics is the mother of reinvention. No boring, long-winded speeches. No local netas showing off their histrionic hilarities. Instead, a trendy pop singer is belting out songs extolling Naveen and the BJD’s achievements. Prerna, the compere is a film star, TV anchor and dancer. Someone is thinking mod. It seems to be working.

The BJP, meanwhile, is following a scorched earth bomb run in the state starting with Prime Minister Modi and Home Minister Shah; its blitzkrieg strategy of unleashing Central heavyweights has paid off in previous state polls. In charge Bhupendra Yadav is camping in the capital at state party HQ, glued to his cellphone when he is not holding the occasional rally.

At public meetings, Pandian could at a pinch pass off as an Odia. He is the top target of the BJP, from the prime minister to a first-time MLA: a proxy dartboard to wound Naveen Patnaik. While the BJP, led by the pugnacious Modi and the combative Shah go for the jugular, the BJD’s rhetorical style is subdued, and prefers sarcasm to vitriol. Even Dharmendra Pradhan abjures invective. During the last election, Shah had referred to Patnaik as a broken-down transformer. The metaphor backfired. On the Khordha stage, the transformation of Pandian — an officer who played soothing Hindu chants in his room — into an aggressive demagogue is smooth. He shouts, “Jai Jagannath!” like it’s a war cry against the BJP’s “Jai Shri Ram!”

There are party workers in large numbers, but ordinary citizens also have come to watch the show. Khordha, which falls in the Bhubaneshwar constituency, is represented by Aparajita Sarangi, an ex-IAS officer who joined the BJP. One of her achievements is a new footbridge, according to the BJD. “Is this all what an MP does? Making a footbridge? Our sarpanch works better than her,” Pandian scoffs, drawing loud sniggers. Women and youth are the BJD’s electoral bulwark; the multitude of female-centric schemes has won the party a strong base.

The BJD is still banking on the immense success of the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana (BSKY), a cashless health scheme launched in 2018, as its game changer; innumerable women and poor households have benefited. It provides Rs 5 lakh per family with an additional `5 lakh for women members. The people of Khordha believe in Patnaik.

In spite of its popularity, BJD knows that the crown of 2024 cannot be retained without a fight. Today, Naveen Patnaik’s stature exceeds that of his giant of a father, Biju. That legacy and his protégé’s future is being threatened by Force Modi. One of Patnaik’s successes is wooing Odia youth with participatory modernity; what can be a better way to do that than sports? Odisha’s stadiums with modern facilities and cutting edge technology are its pride. Sports, especially hockey is BJD’s secret weapon. There are 30 hockey institutes in Odisha. Sundargarh alone has 3-4 Olympic hockey players. There have been instances where hockey sticks have been offered as dowry.

Before the 2023 Hockey World Cup — a matter of Odia pride since it was held in Bhubaneswar — the Cup itself was taken on a tour of 30 districts. It was another matter that India lost. Odisha won. BJD politicians explained the loss away by saying, “so what if we lost? Odisha is promoting the spirit of sports.” If the BJP has to demolish Patnaik’s allure, it must not treat this election as the blood sport politics usually is. It could show less aggression towards Brand Naveen and exhibit more appreciation for Odisha itself.

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