Orissa has witnessed a dramatic turn of events in the last 48 hours. Moving from the BJP to the Left, the ruling regional outfit Biju Janata Dal has swung 180 degree in courting allies as it prepares to go to the polls, simultaneously for the Lok Sabha and assembly seats, in two phases on April 16 and 23.
But will this move of BJD supremo and chief minister Naveen Patnaik help him to return to power for the third consecutive term? Or will his decision to sever 11 year old ties with BJP, which saw him at the head of a coalition government for last nine years, prove to be costly? This is the question that every voter in the state is asking.
One definite outcome of the development is that Orissa this time will see a triangular contest among BJD, BJP and Congress instead of direct contest seen between the BJD led alliance and Congress for the past decade.
Speculation was rife about the continuance of BJP-BJD alliance because of sharp rift between the partners over the number of seats each would contest. While BJP demanded the same ratio of seats as in the 2004 general election - 9 out of 21 Lok Sabha and 63 out of 147 assembly seats - BJD wanted them to fight from fewer seats. It is conventional wisdom that while Patnaik's stock is soaring in Orissa, the BJP's correspondingly is down.
The breakup of the alliance has thrown up some interesting political equations in Orissa. With BJP withdrawing support and demanding President's rule in the state, Patnaik, whose government was reduced to minority, has cosied up to Left parties, Nationalist Communist Party and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, all known adversaries of BJP with limited pockets of influence, to cobble together a majority to survive the confidence vote on March 11.
The plan now is to expand this hand-holding to proper pre and post poll alliances to prevent the Congress from taking advantage of the situation. The CPM politburo member, Sitaram Yechury, who held discussion with Patnaik here over the weekend announced that his party would enter into a pre-poll alliance with the BJD in the state. This includes the Communist Party of India.
The BJD has its own game plan while courting Left parties and others like NCP and JMM. "After the polls, neither the UPA nor the NDA is going to get more than 200 seats in the Lok Sabha. In this context, the Third Front and BJD as a part of this combine will play an important role in deciding the course of action at the Centre", says Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, MP and chief strategist of the party hinting at a greater role for Naveen Patnaik at the Centre.
But the prospect of triangular contest has sent many in three main contending parties, BJP, BJD and Congress, into a huddle. Despite the consolidation of anti-Congress opinion behind BJD-BJP alliance, the Congress received 34 per cent votes compared to 27.36 per cent by BJD and 17.11 per cent by BJP. But this time, the anti-Congress votes are likely to split.
In this context, can BJD's new allies Left, NCP and JMM prevent this and help Naveen Patnaik? New allies have limited pockets of influence in a couple of districts in coastal and north Orissa unlike BJP which has a presence across the state with a particular concentration of supporters in western parts of the state. This means BJD will have to fend for itself in large parts of south and western Orissa.
But BJD is upbeat. It has its mascot, Naveen Patnaik (who has a clean image even after nine years in power); populist measures like rice at Rs 2 to people below poverty line and its own rural development programmes which includes rural connectivity, water supply and electrification etc.
The Congress has recently made some astute moves to counter the ruling party. First, it has overhauled the Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) by installing a new team headed by former Union Minister K P Singh Deo, considered a man of integrity. To counter the clean image of Naveen Patnaik, former chief minister J B Patnaik has been sacked from the post of Opposition leader in the assembly. Instead a tribal leader has been installed to woo the tribals who constitute 24 per cent of the population. It has started a media campaign to show how Centre is bearing the major part of the subsidy in various welfare programmes including rice at Rs 2 per kg to take the wind out of the BJD's sail.
The net result is likely to be an improvement in the Congress tally in the western and southern parts of the state taking advantage of its support base among predominant SC and ST population and the weakened base of BJP in western Orissa, where the BJD is struggling to get a foothold.
Meanwhile, responding to the need arising out of constituency delimitation and to beat the impact of anti-incumbency, BJD plans to field a number of new faces in the coming elections replacing the old ones. "Winnability is the criteria for selection of candidates",says Patnaik. Then the BJD is not alone, the thinking in both Congress and BJP is also along the same lines.
Patnaik has undertaken a gamble by severing the ties with BJP and tying up with new allies. If it succeeds, he will emerge more powerful, not only in the state but also emerge as a powerful central player. But if he fails, then it will not only test his skills as an opposition leader for the first time in his political career, but also may encourage fierce power struggle within the party with two of his closest props and Rajya Sabha MPs, Pyari Mohapatra, an astute political advisor and Baijayant Panda, who is contesting the Lok Sabha polls to improve his stock within the party, intensifying their battle to take over the party mantle.