BJD’s pressing concerns of staying relevant in Odisha politics

The regional party is plagued by lack of grooming of second-rung leadership which would take over from ageing BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik

Updated - June 11, 2024 04:31 pm IST

Published - June 11, 2024 04:17 pm IST - BHUBANESWAR

BJD leader and outgoing Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with party leaders at his residence in Bhubaneswar on June 11, 2024.

BJD leader and outgoing Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik with party leaders at his residence in Bhubaneswar on June 11, 2024. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A photograph of Biju Janata Dal president Naveen Patnaik addressing party leaders, both victors and those defeated, at his sprawling residence, Naveen Niwas, the ultimate power centre of Odisha for more than two decades, had gone viral in the aftermath of announcement of 2024 election results.

Relaxed and at ease, Mr. Patnaik was seen engaging warmly with the leaders. Several images showing leaders freely taking selfies with BJD supremo, unbound by the usual formalities and restrictions, also emerged from Naveen Niwas.

These photographs, though could be deceptive, were aimed at manifesting BJD as democratised and cohesive regional party, which found itself in Opposition role after a long 24 years.

Concerns are being rised on the threat of disintegration looming large over the BJD due to its inexperience in opposition and the BJP’s aggressive efforts to expand its influence in Odisha. .

Sooner or later, the BJD would face an exodus of leaders like one has seen in case of Bharat Rashtra Samithi in Telangana, according to political analysts.

“The BJD government under Mr. Patnaik was just focused on implementing routine welfare programmes primarily because its hold on power. Many of the party’s leaders seem to have lost sight of the original reasons for the BJD’s formation, its core ideologies, and its position in the evolving national political landscape. To sustain its unity and relevance, the party needs to reassess and redefine its ideological foundation,” said Rabi Das, a veteran journalist.

Soon after its formation in 1997, BJD had instantly got acceptance in Odisha because the State was then perceived to be neglected by Centre and there was need for a government running from the State, Mr. Das elaborated. The situation has changed now.

Blaming V.K. Pandian for BJD’s loss in 2024 elections unfortunate, says party supremo Naveen Patnaik

BJD lacks organic cadre structure

BJD’s cadre structure was not known to be organic. At the grassroots level, both in villages and urban areas, leaders often associated with the party because it facilitated closer ties with the administration, enabling them to effectively get things done. Over time, this led to a scenario where local BJD leaders wielded significant influence; nothing would proceed in field-level offices without their approval.

Now, with the party’s diminishing power, these same BJD cadres might struggle to maintain cohesion among their ranks without the administrative clout they once enjoyed.

No second rung leaders

Out of the 51 newly-elected BJD MLAs, only a handful have prior experience sitting in the Opposition. This could prove crucial for BJD leaders in maintaining composure during challenging times.

“Leaders will feel like fish out of water. For over two decades, power had become a habit and the glue that held the party together,” said author and political commentator Sandeep Sahu.

Mr. Patnaik, the outgoing Chief Minister, is expected to become the Leader of the Opposition in the 17th Odisha Legislative Assembly. He is considered only viable candidate, since the party has not groomed a strong second-rung leadership. “Potential leaders showing potential to rise in hierarchy have been intentionally kept at a distance from the party’s core power structure, either due to perceived or actual capabilities,” said Mr. Sahu.

Reliance on bureaucrats

The BJD supremo’s heavy reliance on bureaucrats has now become a significant drawback. No party leaders within the BJD have come as close to him as the retired bureaucrats, such as the late Pyarimohan Mohapatra or V. K. Pandian.

According to BJD insiders, party leaders were afraid of airing their grievance directly to the party president. The messages were routed through his bureaucrat advisors. When role of leaders is now far more important to sustain party’s activities on ground, huge trust deficit has become biggest stumbling block.

There is huge vacuum in BJD after departure of Mr. Pandian, his trusted aide, who was blamed for party’s debacle in assembly and Lok Sabha elections 2024. The Tamil Nadu-born former bureaucrat played key role in at least framing party’s response to State and national developments. ?Without Mr. Pandian, there is hardly any structure in place that looks after party’s day to day affairs.

Mr. Pandian had previously expressed concerns that the BJP might attempt to split the regional party if they secured 50 seats in the Odisha Legislative Assembly. Now, with the BJP winning 78 seats—just four excess of majority—these concerns are more pressing. Analysts suggest that the BJP, aiming for more than a simple majority, may look to entice members of the BJD to join their ranks.

At 77 years, Mr. Patnaik has led the BJD for over 26 years and would turn 82 at the next elections in 2029. Many younger BJD leaders are skeptical about his ability to lead the party into the next election due to his age. Mr. Patnaik has repeatedly stated that his successor will be chosen by the people of Odisha, a statement now seen as vague and unspecific. It is crucial for him to address this issue promptly before time runs out as very few regional parties in India has dominated politics like the BJD has done since its inception.

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