Has the BJP shot itself in the foot by inviting Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Dr Raman Singh to campaign for the forthcoming Panchayat polls in Odisha? By the looks of it, it appears it has. And it has nothing to do with what Raman Singh said or did not say during his whistle-stop tour through Western Odisha yesterday or is likely to say or not say during the second round of campaign in Odisha tomorrow.
On the face of it, what he said yesterday was unexceptionable. The bulk of the Mahanadi water (over 80%) indeed flows into the sea unutilized and Odisha has done nothing about it since the Hirakud dam was commissioned in the 1950s. He was also right when he said the Odisha government woke up very late in the day – on the eve of the Panchayat elections – though construction of the projects on the Chhattisgarh has been going on for over a decade now. In fact, the Odisha government’s laughable attempt to play the innocent victim by claiming that it was kept in the dark by its Chhattisgarh counterpart has been smashed to the smithereens by the sheer weight of evidence dug out by the media and the Opposition to prove otherwise.
But then politics is seldom governed by facts, logic or reason. It has always been about managing perceptions in which the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has proven himself to be a past master. In the year or so that the issue has been festering for, he has managed to convince the people that Chhattisgarh – and Dr Singh, in particular – is the villain of the piece. On his part, the Chhattisgarh Chief Minister has not helped matters by steadfastly refusing to stall the construction work of some ongoing projects – at least temporarily and as a goodwill gesture to prove his earnestness in solving the festering issue. He sullied his book further by saying at the public meeting in Sabdega in Sundaragrh district that the dispute between the two states would be solved in no time if the BJP comes to power in Odisha. This is bound to be interpreted by his detractors in Odisha, including the BJD, as a veiled threat that there would be solution to the vexed problem till the saffron party comes to power here.
If the Naveen Patnaik government and the BJD, for all their acts of omission and commission, are still winning the perception war, it is in no small measure due to the weird thinking of the BJP, which appears to have played right into Naveen’s hands by roping in someone who has successfully been painted as Public Enemy No 1 in Odisha by some clever and cynical manipulation of sentiments of Odisha in the last few months. PCC President Prasad Harichandan was right when he said at a press conference today that it was akin to ‘adding salt to injury’. If the BJP could not foresee the fallout of a Raman Singh visit at this stage, it is obvious that it doesn’t have a finger on the pulse of the people – as politically parties must do.
Where was the need to rope in Raman Singh, of all people, for campaigning? If the idea was to put the ‘record straight’, as Dr Singh claimed in his public meetings yesterday, he should have been the last person to be assigned the task. Instead, someone like Union Water Resources minister Uma Bharati would have been a much better bet. Or even Union Petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan, widely seen as the BJP’s Chief Ministerial face in the 2019 Assembly elections, for that matter. Senior BJD leader Surya Narayan Patro’s jibe that Pradhan had to invite Dr Singh with an eye on being nominated to the Rajya Sabha from the neigbouring state the next time may be hogwash (After all, why would an aspirant for the CM’s post eye an RS seat?), but Pradhan had an excellent opportunity to take centre stage. The decision to invite Raman Singh could well be a game spoiler.
Even if Raman Singh had to be enlisted for campaigning, he should have avoided touching a raw nerve by dwelling on Mahandi and instead focused on the development of his state. His offer of solving the dispute in ‘three minutes flat’ must have been intended as an attempt to put the blame on the BJD’s doors. But in the process, he unwittingly managed to indict himself as someone who had a solution on hands but did not pursue it for political reasons, the same thing that he has accused the BJD of. As if once was not enough, the BJP has compounded its folly by getting Dr Singh for a second round of campaigning on Saturday.
As a political party hoping to come to power in the state in the next elections, the BJP must have weighed the pros and cons of inviting Dr Raman Singh. But this columnist is of the firm view that it has done more harm than good to its chances of winning the Panchayat elections in the short term and the next Assembly elections in the long term.