Chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik, who has been travelling across Odisha in a special election vehicle ahead of the state assembly and Lok Sabha elections, spoke to Padma Rao Sundarji at his home in Bhubaneswar about what makes him popular, being equidistant from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, and why he is confident that his government will be re-elected in 2019. Edited excerpts:
From a political novice to one of the country’s longest-serving CMs, you have now been in power for nearly two decades and never lost an election. Opinion polls show that the BJP is making strides in Odisha, but people still back you as the CM. What explains your popularity?
Our government has been pro-poor, progressive and people-oriented. We have lifted about 80 lakh people out of poverty — Odisha has had the sharpest drop in the country. Be it our Mamta scheme for mothers, or Jaga for urban slum-dwellers, our initiatives are progressive and their main focus is the people. And if acts have to be amended, we do that as well.
You are facing a twin challenge: simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha (Odisha has 21 seats) and the state assembly (147 seats). Which are you focussing on and why?
I don’t quite look at it that way. The trust of people is holistic. So we’ll try to do well in both of course.
You are being seen as a kingmaker since you won big in the last elections both in the Lok Sabha and the state. If one of the big national parties asks for your support, will you offer it?
Sure. We’ve made that clear in our manifesto. We will support whoever commits to fulfilling the just needs of Odisha. Having said that, I repeat: we are equidistant from both the BJP as well as the Congress.
You allied with the BJP between 1998 and 2009 and left after the riots in Kandhamal. The fringe groups of the BJP blamed for the violence are still there. Are they the main reason for your reserve from the BJP?
Absolutely true, yes.
Is that why you told a television channel that PM Modi does not deserve a second term?
I have never ever commented on individuals in politics and neither did I do so to the channel in question. I was talking about the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its failure to tackle farmers’ issues and unemployment, not about Mr. Modi.
What do you think of Mr. Modi? And should the NDA get a second chance?
I think of Mr. Modi as a very hard-working person. And look, the people of India are intelligent enough – a second term for the NDA or not is for them to decide.
You supported Mr. Modi by staging a walkout during the no-confidence motion last year. You also supported demonetization.
Yes. We absolutely supported demonetization because it was a good move against black money. But one that was implemented so badly that a lot of people suffered.
BJP’s popularity seems to have grown. Has it replaced the Congress as your main rival?
To an extent, yes…