Old fox of Orissa politics awaits a last chance

April 6th, 2009 - 10:28 am ICT by IANS  

Bharatiya Janata Party Bhubaneswar, April 6 (IANS) He stepped down as chief minister a decade ago amidst scandals. Earlier this year, his party asked him to relinquish the post of leader of the opposition. He holds no organisational position. Last week, his name did not figure in the list of candidates released by his party for the coming elections.
These are signs of a politician on the wane, especially one who, at 82, appears well past his prime. Surely, it is time for J.B. Patnaik, the patriarch who dominated Congress politics in Orissa for over three decades, to quietly enjoy his autumn.

Only, he is doing no such thing. Most evenings, there is a mini mela at Patnaik’s sprawling residence in the heart of Bhubaneswar. Over 50 vehicles are parked inside and outside the complex. There were some 200 people waiting to see him, individually and in groups.

His staff is busy, ushering people in and out of meetings that range from five-45 minutes, and fielding what appears to be an unending string of phone calls. “These days the number of visitors is unusually high,” said a member of his personal staff. “Today, he must have met at least 3,000 people.”

So what is Patnaik up to?

With the Congress in with a real chance of returning to power in the state thanks to the collapse of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance, the wily old politician is again positioning himself to take a last shot at playing a significant role in state politics.

Although a new guard led by Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) president K.P. Singh Deo has taken charge, Patnaik has links to the party high command and has enough loyalty among sections of members to influence the course of events if the party, which still claims to enjoy 30-35 percent of vote share, returns to power.

His effort over the past few weeks has been to ensure this indeed is the case. In tandem with Lalatendu Vidyadhar Mohapatra, one of the three newly appointed working presidents of the state unit and a Patnaik loyalist, as well as friends in Delhi, the three-time chief minister has, according to one of his close aides, ensured that at least 70 of the Congress candidates for the 21 Lok Sabha and 147 Assembly seats are his supporters.

“It does appear as if Patnaik has skilfully managed to nominate most of his supporters,” said political analyst Rabi Das.

Among the Patnaik loyalists who have bagged Congress nomination are his son-in-law and media baron Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, who last won an election in 1996. He is to contest the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha seat. Soumya’s elder brother Niranjan Patnaik, a veteran legislator, has also got the ticket, as have Bhibhuti Bhushan Mishra, who is close to the Patnaik family, for the Lok Sabha from Cuttack; Alok Jena, another confidant, for the assembly from Bhubaneswar Central; and Naba Kishore Das, for the assembly from Jharsuguda.

Although Patnaik has himself decided to opt out of the elections, he has ensured that the ticket to his Begunia assembly stronghold goes to Pradeep Sahu, a non-entity but loyal to him.

His supporters believe the veteran strategist will emerge as a contender for the top post if the Congress wins.

Patnaik’s political skills are legendary. His influence cuts across party lines, and political analysts say he has been ensuring people close to him get ticket even in the BJP and the BJD.

Patnaik is also believed to be propping up “rebel” Congress candidates against official nominees who owe allegiance to the current establishment in the state.

Yet, Patnaik seems an anachronism today. The man who quit following the killing of Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines, is too much of an old-school politician.

Given his image, it is unlikely that the Congress will nominate him for the chief minister’s post if the party wins a majority. But as political analyst Rabi Das points out: “In a hung assembly his chances are bright.”

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