When Narendra Modi addressed Odisha’s BJP workers on Monday at the Swabhiman rally in Khurda, he kept his options open for chief minister Naveen Patnaik, with whom his party has done business in the past. The body language, the occasional banter, the smiles exchanged during the event at the new IIT branch was impossible to miss. When Prime Minister Modi wore the robe of BJP leader Modi, the attack didn’t go beyond ‘Who is feeding demon of corruption?’ Not once did he name Patnaik or his party Biju Janata Dal (BJD) directly.

Softer tone, cordial body language

This attack on Odisha government without turning acerbic is reminiscent of the tenor of Modi’s rally in Kolkata ahead of the2014 general election. Still a prime ministerial candidate, Modi had then invited ‘Mamata di’ to work for Bengal "together". It’s another matter that Banerjee didn’t respond to that invite the way Modi had wished to, but the tone and tenor of the BJP meeting is a marked departure from the aggressive pitch he prefers.

Backdrop of Assembly election losses

The change of this attitude comes weeks after BJP lost three of its key states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh to Congress in the recent Assembly election results. This has certainly changed the perception battle that has taken the first major hit since 2014 when Modi had swept to power riding on a huge popular mandate that was touted as the ‘Modi wave’.
In December 2018, with the general election less than six months ahead, anti-incumbency has slowly set in. BJP president Amit Shah’s record as an unstoppable election machine has taken a hit. Going ahead in 2019, Modi will have his priorities clear, at least in Odisha – Lok Sabha more important than Assembly election in the state that is slated for 2019, too.

BJP takes MP seats, BJD keeps MLA seats

No one from either party will accept it on record that the BJP may go soft on attacking the opponent in the upcoming Assembly election in Odisha. But it is now an open secret. The aggressive campaign, right from the booth committee meetings to close-door workshops with the state’s social media coordinators by Shah till this summer, hasn’t seen a rejuvenation. While the reason can be attributed to Shah’s preoccupation with Assembly polls, now it seems a conscious decision. There appears a tacit understanding that the BJD, in turn, will go soft against the BJP in the Lok Sabha election campaign in Odisha. Little surprise then that Modi made just a passing reference of the chit fund scam and dedicated almost 10 minutes to the need for ‘development of Odisha’. 

Loss of allies

The BJP has lost a few allies in the recent time, with Upendra Kushwaha being the latest. Something that forced the party ruling at the Centre to seal the Bihar seat-sharing agreement in a hustle. It has lost Chandra Babu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh as well. The size of Naidu's electorate in Andhra Pradesh is considerable. The Shiv Sena has consistently been nagging, making insinuations against the Prime Minister in the Rafale deal. The BJP knows it needs allies. KCR’s Telangana Rashtriya Samithi (TRS) and Naveen Patnaik's Biju Janata Dal (BJD) can be the replacements, in a post-poll scenario. Modi has praised KCR in the recent past and his cordiality with Naveen Patnaik on Monday just proves one thing: he has kept his options open.

So, will Modi do business with Naveen Patnaik again? Premature to say. But when this reporter called up a BJP leader from the state, he addressed him as Naveen "babu". Until the Monday rally, he was Naveen Patnaik.