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Juggernaut rolls


GRAND PLANS: Patnaik wants to carve a larger role for himself in national politics

Few expected Odisha's low-profile chief minister Naveen Patnaik to be the one to revive talk of a third front in national politics. This reticent, media-shy son of legendary socialist leader Biju Patnaik has remained insulated, by choice, in his home state ever since he burst on the political scene to take over his father's legacy. In fact, his Delhi friends, who remember him as an inveterate jet-setter before he became a full-time politician, were surprised that he buried himself in Odisha, not even travelling to the Capital unless absolutely necessary.

It was a jolt, therefore, when he emerged as the spearhead of the near-revolt by non-Congress chief ministers against union home minister P Chidambaram's brainchild, the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, and then topped it up with a spate of interviews to national TV channels in which he dropped broad hints about an impending new political alignment on the national stage. "I certainly feel there is need for a new front which will be transparent, corruption-free and, of course, secular, " he said as he hit out at the Congress-led UPA as "discredited" and corruptionridden" and the BJP-led NDA as "communally tainted".

Patnaik was careful not to jump the gun with a name for the new grouping. It is still in its infancy and the term "Third Front" has been associated with the Left, which has been the pivot of non-Congress, non-BJP groupings over the past two decades. With the Left still to recover from the battering it received in West Bengal and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee raring to take its place in an axis that is independent of the two national parties, a hunt is on for a name devoid of echoes from the past.

But even without a name, the contours are slowly taking shape. Patnaik revealed that he has been in touch with Mamata, Tamil Nadu chief minister Jayalalithaa, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar and TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu. Coordinated opposition to the NCTC was the most recent excuse for engaging with regional barons. But those close to Patnaik admit that their exchanges have been more frequent than the Odisha CM let on. Significantly, Mamata has jumped into the exercise in a big way. Last week, she picked up the telephone to talk to Nitish Kumar for the first time in several years. And she has been maintaining regular contact with UP CM Mayawati through interlocutors her camp does not want to identify.

These are early days and it would be hasty to jump to conclusions about a throwback to the United Front of regional parties that ruled at the centre for a brief but tumultuous period of two years, from 1996 to 1998. But a process has started that could reshape national politics in the run up to the next Lok Sabha elections. "Who knows what will emerge, " says BJD leader Jay Panda. "At the moment, we are consulting with like-minded state leaders on the issue of federalism. We don't want the delicate balance between the states and the Centre to be disturbed. If the UPA government continues to behave in a highhanded manner and does not consult with the states on important issues like NCTC or the Lokayukta, it will give us a readymade platform to increase our collaboration. And who knows where this will lead. " Panda declined to speculate further but the flurry of activity by Patnaik in recent weeks speaks of a desire to step out of the confines of Odisha and play a larger role at the Centre. Prime Minister perhaps, of a non-Congress, non-BJP government in the future? It would certainly fulfil a dream his father cherished but failed to realise despite an impressive innings in politics. Yet, when Patnaik first came into politics, few gave him a chance. He had neither inherited Biju's flamboyant and assertive personality, nor his love for politics. In fact, Patnaik stayed far away from his father's profession, preferring to write books and leading a dilettante's life with his Page 3 friends who included international celebrities like Jacqueline Kennedy and Mick Jagger. It was quite a shock for them when he abandoned all that to seek election to Parliament from Biju's constituency, Aska in Odisha, on a Janata Dal ticket. That was in 1997 and he has not looked back since.

A year later, the Janata Dal split and Patnaik founded the Biju Janata Dal. He crafted an alliance with the BJP and became chief minister of Odisha in 2000. People used to joke in Odisha that he wouldn't last. He spoke halting Oriya with a convent accent, seemed to have little connection with people and knew next to nothing about politics. He confounded the pundits by not only winning three successive elections but also by outmanoeuvring his ally the BJP, which he dumped in a spectacular manner on the eve of the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Since then, he has succeeded in squeezing both the BJP and the Congress to the margins of Odisha politics. This was underlined by the BJD's sweeping victory in the recent zilla parishad polls in which the party doubled its strength to win two-thirds of the seats. According to a BJD leader, this roughly translates into more than 120 of the 147 assembly seats.

With his home state firmly in his grip, it was inevitable that Patnaik would want to spread his wings. He has taken the first baby steps to carving out a larger role for himself in national politics by bringing non-Congress, non-BJP regional leaders under the banner of federalism. Now his political skills will be truly tested as he works to forge them into a viable front capable of bargaining for a new deal with either of the national parties. Congress spokesperson Renuka Chowdhary dismissed his efforts airily. "We have heard and seen a lot about such a front as also its fate, " she told the media. Although the BJP has refused to comment, its leaders also say privately that all this activity is much ado about nothing. Can Patnaik prove his detractors wrong again? Or will his plans fall victim to the ego clashes that have dogged all previous attempts to forge a third front?

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