The massive reshuffle in Naveen Patnaik’s Cabinet over the weekend, which saw 10 ministers leaving the ministry and an equal number coming in, was the biggest revamp undertaken by the Odisha Chief Minister since he led the Biju Janata Dal to power in the state 17 years ago.
In all, 12 ministers were inducted on Sunday, of which two were existing ministers of state who were elevated to Cabinet posts, in what was the first reshuffle since Patnaik took charge as chief minister for the fourth consecutive term in May 2014.
Expected but long overdue, Patnaik’s calculated move was more a way of telling his party men that he is still the boss than a response to the threat posed by a belligerent Bharatiya Janata Party that is making inroads into the state, as was speculated.
This is not because the Biju Janata Dal chief is taking the BJP lightly. After its unexpected success in the zilla parishad polls in February, where it surged ahead of the Congress to become the second-largest party, the BJP has now set its sights on dethroning the Biju Janata Dal in Odisha in the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Patnaik understands the clear and present danger that a resurgent BJP can pose to his party.
The Biju Janata Dal’s performance in the zilla parishad polls – where it won with 473 seats out of 876 – was a climbdown from its 2012 tally of 651 seats. The biggest gainer was the BJP, which it increased its tally by more than eight times, from 36 in 2012 to 297. When the results were announced, the chief minister had acknowledged that this was a “wake up call.” “There will be a course-correction.” he said.
However, though the BJP’s graph may have risen, it still has a long way to go before it can defeat the Biju Janata Dal in the state. For Patnaik, more damaging than BJP’s rise has been the speculation in the media about the ruling party’s internal conflicts, public spats between Biju Janata Dal leaders and murmurs of his weakening grip over the party.
“Patnaik is fully aware that the speculations are a part of a perception war unleashed by the BJP and has taken steps to deal with it accordingly,” said a Biju Janata Dal leader.
To the root
After the ruling party suffered setbacks in western Odisha and parts of northern Odisha in the Panchayat polls, Patnaik held a a series of meetings with party leaders and workers.
Over the last few weeks, Patnaik conducted review meetings with the party leaders and panchayati raj representatives of all districts and told them to go back to the grassroots and work for the people. He has also been listening to local workers’ grievances against the party MLAs and ministers in their area – something unusual for a chief minister known to prefer his solitude.
From the discussions at these meetings, it emerged that the Biju Janata Dal had underestimated the threat posed by the BJP in Western Odisha and the effective campaign by Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cadre in the region. To the rural voters in the area, the RSS cadre, comprising government servants, teachers and even doctors, purportedly inspired more confidence than the BJD’s cadres, mostly petty contractors.
The Cabinet reshuffle was prompted by such brainstorming sessions.
Through the reshuffle, Patnaik has sent out several key messages, political observes said.
First, the chief minister has sought to re-establish the fact that he is the supreme and unchallenged leader of the regional outfit. For instance, there were murmurs that three young ministers were virtually running the government with the backing of a powerful bureaucrat. Patnaik sought to scotch such speculation by asking the ministers to resign from their Cabinet posts and work on strengthening the party at the grassroots level.
Second, the reshuffle generated a fair share of buzz and changed the narrative in the local media, which had been focussing on the Biju Janata Dal’s setbacks. With this, Patnaik sent out the message that the BJP cannot upstage the Biju Janata Dal simply through a media campaign.
Thirdly, Patnaik secured the support of several senior party leaders who had a strong grassroots presence but had been feeling neglected in the party of late and were speculated to be vulnerable to the risk of poaching by the BJP. Moreover, Patnaik inducted several Scheduled Caste and Other Backward Caste leaders into the Cabinet to regain support among these sections.
Lastly, by ousting a few ministers who were under the Central Bureau of Investigation’s scanner in a chit-fund scam, he blunted the BJP’s attack against his government.
Biju Janata Dal leaders said the reshuffle is just one aspect of an ongoing exercise to rejuvenate the party ahead of 2019.