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State Scan

The new gameplan

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Led by Jagdish Tytler (right), an aggressive Congress is targeting Naveen Patnaik. The CM earlier became a rallying point for anti-Congress parties by proposing the name of P A Sangma for President

The recent Congress onslaught could not have come at a worse time for Naveen Patnaik. He had just finished quelling the party rebellion led by his former mentor Pyarimohan Mohapatra when he came up against an unusually belligerent attack led by Congress leader Jagdish Tytler.

The fractured state Congress, which had been in a state of disarray since the BJD came to power in 2000, suddenly launched a strong - and violent - offensive against Patnaik for recommending coal blocks to private companies. So much so that Tytler, who is in-charge of Odisha, dubbed Patnaik as 'beimaan' (dishonest) at a party rally in Bhubaneswar on September 6. The aggression did not remain confined to words;it manifested itself in physical form as hundreds of Congress supporters, allegedly provoked by Tytler's speech, clashed with security personnel, leaving several people, including a lady constable, Pramilla Padhi, badly wounded.

As the ruling BJD accused Tytler of instigating the violence and the police slapped criminal cases on him, the Congress turned the heat on the regional party by successfully organising an Odisha bandh on September 10. "We will keep up our momentum and hold different agitations, including a 15-day padayatra from October 2, to expose the misdeeds of BJD, " says Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik, who has also been booked under criminal charges in connection with the September 6 mayhem.

BJD leaders have been quick to condemn the "Congress-sponsored violence". "People in Odisha are peaceful and do not support violence. They remained indoors on September 10 not because they supported the Congress's bandh call, but due to terror unleashed by Congress hooligans, " says BJD vice-president and health minister Damodar Rout. "No matter how hard they try to defame Naveen Patnaik, they will never succeed, " he adds.

The BJD version notwithstanding, politicians as well as analysts in Bhubaneswar believe that the Congress's onslaught against Patnaik is well-calibrated and carefully timed. "Pyarimohan was acting as a shield for Naveen. He is a master strategist and helped Naveen overcome different crises in the government and the party. His absence has made Naveen vulnerable, something which is not lost on the Congress leadership, " observes a senior BJD leader.

On May 29, when Patnaik was away in England on an official trip, his former adviser and Rajya Sabha member Pyarimohan Mohapatra and some BJD legislators allegedly attempted a coup. Though Naveen's loyalists aborted it, the problems that were festering within the regional party lay bare. All was certainly not well within the party, which Naveen along with some erstwhile Janata Dal members founded in December, 1997, after the demise of his legendary father Biju Patnaik. What made the tumult even more tragic was that it was engineered by bureaucrat-turned-politician Pyarimohan who had over the years worked extremely hard to consolidate Naveen's position.

Although Pyarimohan was quick to play down allegations that he had planned to upstage Patnaik, and said he had fallen victim to a 'group of conspirators', the CM, on his return home, termed the alleged failed coup bid as 'beimaani' (betrayal) and suspended his former supporter and two MLAs from the party. He also sacked three ministers from the government. By doing so, Naveen apparently succeeded in putting a lid on the revolt. But now, the Congress' newfound belligerence has put him on a very sticky wicket.

Having been out of power in Odisha for over a decade, the least the Congress can hope in the next Assembly and Lok Sabha elections slated in 2014 is to increase its tally. The party has 27 MLAs in the 147-member state legislature and six Lok Sabha members. "Apart from the possibility of forming the government in Bhubaneswar, the Congress high command sees Odisha as a state where the party can win more Lok Sabha seats, " points out a Congress leader.
With the Congress not faring well in states like Uttar Pradesh and Punjab in the Assembly polls held earlier this year, and Jagan Mohan Reddy's YSR Congress posing serious trouble for the party in Andhra Pradesh, the party now appears to be eyeing Odisha, which sends 21 MPs to the Lok Sabha.

"Naveen is already in his third term, and local antiincumbency is expected to play a role in the next elections. We can surely hope to bag more Lok Sabha seats, " says a Congress leader. He points out that in the past central Congress leaders and Union ministers were perceived as going soft on Patnaik but they have now started targeting the Odisha CM's 'clean image', considered his most prized political asset.

"Earlier, when Congress leaders came from Delhi, they gave Naveen a clean chit because the party leadership saw him as a potential ally. But that no longer seems feasible, " the leader adds.

The Congress's offensive is driven not just by the BJD regime's anti-Centre tirade, its refusal to give the Niyamgiri bauxite mines to the Vedanta group or the controversy over forest land issues for Posco. It is also irked by Patnaik's increasingly obvious desire to play a bigger role in national politics.

In February, Patnaik revived the Third Front debate, seeking an alternative to the "thoroughly discredited" and "scam-ridden" Congress-led UPA and the "communally tainted" BJP-headed NDA (of which he was once a part). He also put the Union government on the back foot by spearheading a campaign of non-Congress CMs against the contentious proposal for a National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), forcing deferment of its formation. He followed it up by becoming the first leader to propose the candidature of P A Sangma for the post of President, thereby becoming a rallying point against Congress's Pranab Mukherjee, who eventually won the July 19 presidential polls.

Little wonder then, the Grand Old Party has decided to give Patnaik a tough time.

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