What does the opposition need to learn from Naveen Patnaik's defeat?

Ananya Shroff
8 Min Read


Author: Swapan Dasgupta
It is rare, but not entirely surprising, for an election loser to be hailed as a national hero. Winston Churchill's reputation as a British icon survived despite his crushing defeat in the 1945 election. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's defeat in 2004 was also surprising. Even though he was out of power, his reputation as an affable politician was enhanced by his affability. Even now, overly combative BJP leaders are sometimes gently reminded of Vajpayee's guiding principle: 'Big tasks require big hearts.' Any bitterly contested general election is likely to throw up contentious situations, and the recently concluded polls were no different. Still, it is reassuring that amid the bitterness, which will take time to subside, one politician emerged from defeat with his reputation not only intact but embellished.

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Why was there no celebration over Patnaik's defeat?

Usually, the defeat of a leader who has been in power for 24 years is met with wild celebrations. Remember the celebrations in Kolkata in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee stormed the 'Red Fort' with a landslide victory after 34 years. There was no such celebration after the defeat of Naveen Patnaik, the most unpredictable politician in Odisha. He was caught in the turmoil of public life after the demise of his father Biju Patnaik in 1997. Perhaps the people of Odisha were bored of the calm brought to public life by Naveen Babu. They were looking for excitement with the promise of a Modi wave. Perhaps they reacted sharply against the alleged political takeover of Naveen Niwas.

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Naveen was not defeated by any hatred

Whatever be the assessment of the election results, Patnaik's defeat was not motivated by any kind of hatred. For all his alleged shortcomings and quirks, the Biju Janata Dal leader was always seen as an epitome of decency and dignity. How much he was respected from all quarters became evident when he attended the swearing-in ceremony of his successor Mohan Charan Majhi, the first chief minister of the first BJP government in Odisha. From the prime minister and the Union home minister on down, almost everyone at the swearing-in ceremony in Bhubaneswar last Wednesday saw the outgoing leader not as an adversary but as Odisha's senior statesman.

How can we move forward in coordination with the new centre?

What helped in this rise was that Naveen Babu understood the limitations of partisanship. While in office, he realised that the development of a state also depended on cooperation and coordination with the Centre, irrespective of which party was ruling in Delhi. This bipartisan approach – coupled with his characteristic spontaneity – helped him take many major decisions for Odisha and took this backward state ahead of neighbouring West Bengal. Odisha came to be regarded as the Jewel of the East. This may have hurt Bengali pride, but a very large proportion of the students who sustained Bhubaneswar as an education hub came from Bengal.

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Separated from NDA in 2009, did not form alliance again

Naveen Babu is the leader of a regional party that never formally aligned itself with any national coalition after walking out of the NDA in 2009. This strategic autonomy is shaped by a keen awareness of national interests. Whether it was taking the extra step to revive hockey as the national sport or collaborating with the BJP on the GST law and the repeal of Article 370, he instinctively knew where party politics ends and national interest begins. This created a special place for him in public life.

Why should the opposition learn from Patnaik?

India is entering a new era of competitive politics. Naveen Babu's political outlook offers valuable lessons. In recent times, many institutions in India have come under attack from foreign entities. Attempts were made to question the integrity of India's democracy, including election results. This was not because the West has any fanatical interest in maintaining freedom and independence, but because they wanted to undermine India's global standing by highlighting its so-called democratic shortcomings.

There is a need to be alert to the signals coming from the west

It is shameful that the Western agenda was promoted by political parties and others who wanted a stick to beat the Modi government with. It was reprehensible that the leader of a major opposition party appealed to the West to intervene and save Indian democracy. The inability to distinguish between domestic politics and national interest has also weakened Indian businesses. Over the past two decades, many Indian corporates have become significant players on the international stage. As anticipated, their rise has led to rivalries, including with the dragon in the East. The government in Delhi has an obligation to support legitimate Indian businesses abroad and protect them from motivated attacks. There must be a national consensus among all parties that value national sovereignty to promote Indian enterprise.

Why is it important to understand opposition?

Yet, in an attempt to target Modi, there were politicians and their allies who happily joined in motivated attacks such as the biased Hindenburg report on the Adani Group. The attacks did not stop even after the Supreme Court found no evidence of wrongdoing on his part. Now, in an attempt to target Indian business further, baseless allegations of a stock market scam linked to exit polls are being levelled. The rationale behind these attacks on national institutions is akin to a fierce war of attrition. To destroy the financial backbone of the country to target the ruling party. Naveen Patnaik carried on as an independent chief minister in these difficult times. He was mindful that to make Odisha better, he would also have to keep the tricolour flying high. This is a lesson for those who take endless tuitions in politics but never seem to learn.

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