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Can Nitish Persuade Naveen?

Bhubaneswar: Now it seems the turn of Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal (U) leader Nitish Kumar to persuade his Odisha counterpart and BJD President Naveen Patnaik. Shri Kumar is all set to visit Bhubaneswar on 9 May and talk to Naveen on the proposal of forming a group of regional parties before the 2024 general elections. Nitish will meet Naveen at around 12 noon on Tuesday.

Nitish’s objective is very simple, to unite non-BJP parties against the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah combine, which has run the Central Government since 2014. Both Naveen and Nitish were former allies of the BJP led NDA. When Naveen kept himself out of the NDA in the run up to the 2009 general elections, Nitish has recently dropped BJP. Both were also Members in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee Government.

Though Naveen and his BJD severed links with the NDA, the regional party President, however, continued his support to the BJP Central Leadership and often provided support to Narendra Modi Government both in Parliament and outside. Naveen’s understanding with the Modi-Shah combine was clear after the BJD supported BJP candidate Ashwini Vaishnaw in the Rajya Sabha elections. This apart, Naveen has all along supported the Treasury Bench in the floor of the Parliament on several bills and other issues thus creating an impression that BJD was a true friend of the saffron party.

However, the BJD of late protested against the hike in cooking gas. This is after lot of persuasion by the regional party leaders to maintain their identity as a regional party while protecting interest of the State.   

BJD continued to claim that the regional party continued to maintain equal distance from both the BJP led NDA and Congress led UPA. It is, however, a fact that Naveen’s party supported the BJP on different occasions. The critics including Congress dubbed it as an outcome of fear among the BJD leadership.

The BJD supremo for the last time in 2009 had called the BJP as “communal” and Congress as “corrupt”. In the last 14 years, Naveen has not used any unpalatable words against either the BJP or the Congress.

However, under the changed circumstances when the BJP in Odisha eyes on the Lok Sabha and Assembly seats of BJD, the regional party appeared annoyed and therefore, may support the regional front leaders like Nitish Kumar. Before the Bihar Strong Man, AITMC leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in March last had met Naveen here. Both the leaders pledged to work to strengthen federalism, but never uttered a word against the BJP.

So far the regional party leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar, Akhilesh Yadav, Aravind Kejriwal and others have united. BRS leader K Chandrasekhar Rao and YSR Congress leader YS Jagan Mohan Reddy are also working independently. Shri Rao has openly opposed the BJP government while Jagan plays a balancing act.

In a situation when the country’s main opposition party- Congress is not strong enough to counter the growth of BJP, it is regional parties which have all the strength and potential to give a check to the election machine of BJP. However, there is no unity among the regional parties. Both Nitish Kumar and Mamata Banerjee have been working day and night to unite the regional parties and Bihar CM’s proposed Odisha visit on 9 May is certainly a move towards that direction.

However, the question now arises, whether Nitish can persuade Naveen to join them or maintain self identity or openly or secretly support Modi-Shah combine? Naveen continued to remain as a difficult mathematics for all the leading politicians as the BJD Supremo has the habit of not disclosing his cards easily.

There is no guarantee that Naveen would support the regional parties. He may or may not, say political analysts, because of the past records of the BJD President. Naveen, who has been ruling the state for the last 23 years, has his own calculations and based on that he has successfully been in power. He does not take any reference from either Nitish or Mamata. Naveen has his own formula and applies it for which he is performing well for all the years and never fails to meet the target.

It is another matter that the BJD last time in 2019 lost eight Lok Sabha seats to BJP and the Congress, but successfully maintained its tally in the State Assembly by capturing 113 MLA seats in the Odisha House. Therefore, his position remained intact in the Odisha politics and he continued to remain in power.

However, this time round, the situation is different. The BJP has been steadily gaining ground in Odisha. It is, however, a fact that the BJP gained out of the loss of Congress thus keeping the regional party’s position intact. BJD continued to get above 50 per cent of votes though BJP also raised its vote share due to weak Congress.

There are no two opinions that the Congress base is gradually eroding in Odisha. The BJP has already gained and raised its vote share to about 40 per cent. At the same time, it appeared that the BJP’s growth is complete and the portion of votes splitting from the Congress is now going in favour of BJD and not BJP.

The result of the Padampur by-poll is an instance. The BJP maintained its vote share in Padampur but still lost the by-poll as the BJD secured all the split votes of Congress. The BJD candidate won Padampur seat by over 42,000 votes in the by-poll while the actual vote margin of the BJD candidate in 2019 general elections was about 5,000 votes.       

Under the changed circumstances, no one can read Naveen’s mind. He may go with the regional parties if he sees real threat from BJP. He may also remain neutral if BJD gets assured that it would get split votes of Congress . Unless there is a threat to his own position, Naveen may not go with regional parties. Therefore, it is a million dollar question as to whether Nitish can persuade Naveen.