Group President, Group Managing Director & Editor In Chief: Dr.Shelly Ahmed

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

IS 'NAVEEN' LOSING THE BATTLE OF PERCEPTION?

By CJ Manas Sahu in Bhubaneshwar

Thirteen years after becoming the Chief Minister of Odisha and a year ahead of the next Assembly elections, Naveen Patnaik has suddenly woken up to the electoral prospects of the battle cry for ‘special category’ status to the state. On Sunday, Naveen launched a signature campaign which, we are told, would end up with the signatures of a crore of people—in other words roughly one out of every four Odias—before being sent to the president.

The target of one crore, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) sources admit in private, was chosen to make it appear as a truly people’s movement rather than a ruling party affair. In another symbolic gesture aimed at proving the non-party credentials of the campaign, Naveen invited centenarian freedom fighter Purushottam Nayak to put the first signature on the memorandum. Nayak was followed by another ageing freedom fighter Bhabani Patnaik (92). Naveen’s signature came only at third place. The BJD supremo lined up a galaxy of stars from the entertainment and sports arenas to drive the same ‘non-partisan’ message home.

Two days before the launch of the signature campaign, the BJD had called a dawn-to-dusk ‘hartal’ – not a bandh, it was at pains to emphasise – to protest against the alleged step motherly attitude of the UPA government at the Centre. It was the culmination of a week-long, state-wide protest by the party from the block level upwards. Earlier in the month, the Chief Minister had piloted a resolution demanding special category status for the state, which was predictably passed unanimously by the state Assembly.

But why has ‘special category’ status suddenly become so important for Naveen? After all, his espousal of the ‘special category’ cause has never extended beyond writing periodic letters to the Centre. Naveen is not known to have raised the demand even once during the six-year period from 1998 when his party was part of the NDA government. [Why, he had even reprimanded the then Political Affairs Committee (PAC) chairman of the party Bijay Mohapatra for submitting a memorandum to the Prime Minister of the time Atal Behari Vajpayee making precisely the same demand!]. Besides, his oft-repeated claim about poverty in the state having come down by a whopping 21 percent from 58 percent in 2003 and to just 37 percent in 2010 and the state having emerged as the most favoured destination for investors make Odisha singularly ineligible for such a status, as Planning Commission Deputy Chairperson sarcastically pointed out some time ago.

The answer lies in the politics of it. As soon as the Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram, during his budget speech in February this year, talked about replacing existing yardsticks like terrain, density of population and length of international border with more ‘relevant’ parameters like per capita income and other human development indicators like literacy and health, it became obvious that Odisha would become eligible for it whenever these new criteria are put in place. Suddenly, Naveen, who has converted Centre-bashing (UPA-bashing to be more precise) into a fine art, found the ground slipping from underneath his feet. He quickly realised that his non-stop tirade against Central neglect of Odisha would ring hollow if the UPA—the Congress, in particular—walks away with the credit for according special category status to the state which, among other things, would make 90% of all Central assistance ‘grants’ as opposed to loans. It was the last thing he would countenance just a year ahead of what is already being billed as the toughest of his four electoral battles in the state.

More worryingly, comparisons with Nitish Kumar were becoming increasingly odious for Naveen. The Bihar chief minister’s adroit card-playing vis-a-vis the Centre, which resulted in a Rs 12, 000 crore bounty for the state barely within weeks of the JD (U) show of strength in the national capital, showed the Odisha chief minister in poor light. “While Nitish holds a rally of lakhs in Delhi, the BJD could gather no more than a few thousand Odias residing in the city on Sunday to protest Central apathy,” pointed out Jajati Biswal, a resident of Bhubaneswar.

It was thus important for Naveen to dispel the impression of an effete chief minister pleading with the Centre for something that many believe is the state’s rightful claim. Realising that special category status to Odisha is now only a matter of time, Naveen ratcheted up his anti-Centre rhetoric to convince an electorate that is getting increasingly disenchanted that it was his strident and single-minded pursuit of the cause that forced the UPA government to concede the ‘just’ demand. The Manmohan Singh government played into his hands somewhat by granting just Rs 1, 250 crore for Odisha under the Backward Region Grant Fund (BRGF) in the 12th Five-year Plan even as it granted Rs 12, 000 crore to the politically more important Bihar and Rs 4, 500 crore for the Bundelkhand region in Uttar Pradesh. It gave the perfect opportunity to Naveen to claim that the UPA decides grants to states on ‘political considerations’.

Determined not to be outdone by Naveen this time, the state Congress has harped on the fact that the lesser grant to Odisha was on account of the state government’s inability to spend money sanctioned earlier, furnish utilisation certificates (UCs) and submit fresh proposals and not due to political discrimination. “After all, neither Bihar nor Uttar Pradesh is ruled by the Congress,” pointed out Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) president Niranjan Patnaik.

Patnaik, who led a delegation of OPCC leaders that met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Saturday, claimed that Singh had given an assurance that Odisha would duly get special category status whenever the new criteria take effect. He also quoted the PM as saying that the Centre was more than willing to give more if the state could spend the money already given properly. The meeting, preceded by submission of memorandums demanding special category status for the state to President Pranab Mukherjee and Finance Minister P Chidambaram, was part of a carefully calibrated exercise to ensure that the party gets its due credit as and when Odisha gets special category status, along with Bihar, Jharkhand and a few other states.

The battle, as Naveen Patnaik realises only too well, is about perception. It is perhaps too early to say whether the one crore-strong signature campaign for special category status would win the perception battle for Naveen or increase voter cynicism about the genuineness of his anti-Centre credentials.
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