3 years


The Enduring Mystique of Naveen Patnaik

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As the Odisha Chief Minister is all set for a fourth term, Ullekh NP, travelling across the state, finds out why one of India’s suavest politicians is the smartest as well
The weather is extremely humid and the afternoon scorching here in the small town of Brahmagiri, near Puri, the coastal Odisha city considered holy by Hindus. People, mostly poor and emaciated, had crowded hours earlier alongside several shacks selling tea, and when the chopper appeared in the sky a little further, their faces lit up. It landed 10 minutes later, kicking up a storm of dust with the vigour of its rotor blades. When the man in white kurta- pyjama and chappals stepped out, people craned their necks, let out screams of joy, and surged forward to see the state’s most high-profile leader of his generation.

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was soon on a road show, waving and smiling. Then he spoke pithily through the microphone in accented Oriya: “The BJD (Biju Janata Dal) has the blessings of the four crore people of the state and will perform well [in elections to both the state Assembly and Lok Sabha].” The crowd— including swarms of party workers who milled along the narrow roads of this dusty town—broke into applause. “He is different. But he wants to help us,” said Satyavrata Das, a first-time voter, after Patnaik was gone.

Chief Minister since 2000, Patnaik had been on the road for 21 days, visiting 21 Lok Sabha and 132 of the 147 Assembly constituencies in this eastern state. Some places, he visited twice, Brahmagiri among them. The 67-year-old, who is seeking re-election for a fourth term, is an oddball of a politician. The Doon School alumnus does not fit the usual mould of politicians who establish themselves as regional satraps. Unlike his father, the late Biju Patnaik, he is not a grassroots leader. Though he is warm, he is not someone who mingles easily with the masses. He is no good orator either. His Oriya is not better than Congress President Sonia Gandhi’s Hindi, BJD leaders concede in a lighter vein. “All that is true. But people thought that unlike the leaders who spoke their language and looted them, including relief funds following the 1999 super cyclone, Patnaik is someone who is very different. Until he came along, the state was ruled by middlemen who acted at the behest of politicians. The joke here is that it is good he doesn’t speak Oriya, the only language that middlemen knew,” laughs Political Science Professor Narottam Gaan of Utkal University. In fact, a pre-poll survey by Chennai Mathematical Institute’s director Rajeeva Karandikar has reported that Patnaik as an individual enjoys more popularity than the state government led by the BJD, the party he founded in December 1997.

There is, however, talk that the party will likely score less than it did in 2009, thanks to anti-incumbency against Patnaik’s 14-year-rule and the rising popularity of the BJP’s PM candidate Narendra Modi—a phenomenon that is expected to have an impact on poll outcomes in this state as well, especially in its western region comprising Kalahandi, Bolangir, Bargah, Sundargarh, Sambalpur, Mayurbhanj and so on. This is a region where sentiments of being ignored by coastal Odisha run high. It is also an area that the BJD had let the BJP focus on, back when the two parties were allies (it was an alliance that ended a month before the 2009 elections).

Political analysts say the BJP might gain in strength here this time around. In the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the BJD won 14 of the state’s 21 Lok Sabha seats and secured 108 of its 147 Assembly seats. The Congress won seven and the BJP none.

Professor Gaan feels the BJD’s tally may come down, but it will most likely retain power in the state. He agrees that the key to such prospects is the mystique that surrounds Patnaik and the perception that he is pro-poor. “It may have waned a little over the years, but it is still there,” he notes.

Is there a ‘Naveen mystique’?

Yes, of course, says a former bureaucrat based in Cuttack who has closely watched Patnaik for years. “Biju Patnaik himself never thought that his son would make it big in politics and therefore didn’t launch him in politics. Maybe he wanted to keep his family away, but it’s no secret that he thought Naveen unfit for politics,” he says. Some other BJD leaders that Open spoke to subscribe to this view. One of them, asking not to be named, says, “It only proves that Naveen is here on his own, not because he was promoted by his father. That he inherited his father’s legacy is altogether a different matter.”

Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, a BJD Member of Parliament from Kendrapara who was one of those who helped Patnaik found the BJD, admits that the CM has endeared himself to the masses partly because of what people don’t know about him. “I think [the mystique] does work. He is an introvert (unlike Biju Patnaik), and people gave him a lot of benefit of doubt initially … he soon adapted to the life of a politician,” avers Panda.

Opinions on his adaptive ability cut both ways. Pyarimohan Mohapatra, the discredited former BJD leader who enjoyed sweeping powers in the Patnaik regime until 2012, has long claimed that he was the one who stepped in to handle organisational matters of the BJD in the state. “This was because Naveen knew nothing and we had to handle things for him. Maybe after I have left the BJD, he had to work a little and adapt himself to the new situation. Otherwise he knew nothing about Odisha and its people,” alleges this former Patnaik confidant who, after resigning from the BJD two years ago—following a coup attempt to unseat Patnaik while he was away in London—formed a new political outfit, the Odisha Jana Morcha.

Two BJD leaders Open spoke to contend that Mohapatra did “have a lot of responsibilities in hand” while he was with the BJD. They argue that it doesn’t mean that Patnaik was unaware of what was happening. As Panda points out, the BJD president had won two general elections before Mohapatra began to associate himself closely with the BJD. Being Biju Patnaik’s personal secretary, Mohapatra knew the lay of the land and was undoubtedly of great help to Patnaik, who bestowed a lot of powers on him, says Panda. “But that doesn’t mean Patnaik hadn’t adapted to new situations,” says the Kendrapada MP, emphasising that the Chief Minister had overcome the crisis of Mohapatra’s coup attempt even though he was overseas. “I was in Australia and [Patnaik] in London, but he worked so hard to defuse the crisis, and he did. I coordinated closely with him throughout,” says Panda, seated in a village home in his constituency hours before the election campaign is to end.

Meanwhile, Professor Gaan says that Patnaik uses a “certain strategy” to “demand extreme loyalty” from his party leaders so as to consolidate power. “He shuffles the cabinet and council of ministers very often and that leaves ministers and other leaders a little fidgety when it comes to committing anything wrong, be it questioning Patnaik or indulging in corruption,” he adds.

Patnaik’s strategy seems to have paid off, says a senior BJD leader, speaking on condition of anonymity: “He could even be mean to some of his loyalists just to create an aura of unpredictability about himself.” Patnaik, it is alleged, has lately been cold to Panda, a loyalist and family friend. “It is Patnaik’s way of keeping his own people on tenterhooks and demanding further loyalty,” says this leader.

Panda rubbishes such talk, saying, “I have also heard of this rumour. Such rumours were there when my Rajya Sabha term ended and when I was looking for a Lok Sabha seat.” Kendrapada is one of the safest seats for the BJD in the state—even in the elections held after the 1984 assassination of Indira Gandhi, the Congress couldn’t make inroads here.

Yet, there are murmurs. Says another bureaucrat, also speaking anonymously, “Naveen doesn’t trust many people for a long period. He runs affairs with the help of a few.”

Ever since he parted ways with Mohapatra, Patnaik has in place some senior bureaucrats who even BJD ministers say call the shots in the Odisha government. In fact, it is not unusual to run into ministers in Bhubaneswar who say that they just hold ceremonial positions, while the real responsibilities of governance rest with these bureaucrats.

“Senior IAS officer VK Pandian is the new Mohapatra,” says BJP senior leader Dharmendra Pradhan. The BJP had lodged a formal complaint with Odisha’s Chief Electoral Officer against Pandian, accusing him of managing the entire election campaign of the ruling BJD and functioning like an office-bearer of the party. In a letter to the election commissioner, the BJP’s state unit had said that Pandian was misusing his official power and machinery in violation of the Model Code of Conduct for elections.

Besides Pandian, other bureaucrats who are close to the CM include Chief Secretary BK Patnaik, Principal Secretary AP Padhi, and Home Secretary UN Behera. Pandian and others have denied the charges.

Anoop Mohanty, a Bhubaneswar- based driver who has driven Patnaik around on campaign trails, says that the Chief Minister may be stern and ruthless with his colleagues but is warm and unassuming with the common man. “He would sit in the front seat next to me and take my permission before lighting his favourite Triple Five cigarette. He also enquires after members of my family and asks if I have eaten or not,” says he.

Several Odisha voters who Open met— in Dhamanagar, Bhadrak district, and Phulbani in Kandhamal, apart from Balangir—feel that Patnaik is revered by the common man largely for his ‘simple ways’. This perception helps, BJD leaders say. Patnaik, a man of taste, may look modest thanks to his attire and composure, but the leader is highly Westernised and has expensive tastes, agree party leaders.

He can get as dismissive and enigmatic as anyone, adds a person who has been close to the Chief Minister. Some time ago, at the end of a ‘briefing’ by a bureaucrat who passionately narrated a major crisis and differences of opinion among senior bureaucrats, Patnaik is said to have asked the officer whether he liked the new curtains in his office that he had handpicked himself.

Some of his close associates say there is more to his behaviour than meets the eye. “Which perhaps explains his evolution to maturity as a politician,” says a powerful bureaucrat, asking not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the media. After all, for someone who used to zip in and out of the country frequently and had in his charmed social circuit celebs such as Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and former US First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, to name a few, Patnaik travelled abroad only once after taking over as Chief Minister. It was when he was away to hardsell the state as an investment destination in 2012 that the coup attempt was made.

The eternal bachelor’s reluctance to travel abroad has been ascribed by his rivals and some of his partymen to his lack of trust in people around him. But BJD leaders such as Panda find the accusation weird. So does Professor Gaan, who reasons, “He has inherited Biju Patnaik’s legacy and whether he is insecure or not, it is not easy for rivals within or outside his party to pin him down.” Patnaik, party insiders say, gets ‘political advice’ from his older sister Gita Mehta, wife of Sonny Mehta, head of the Alfred A Knopf publishing house, and other intellectuals based in India and abroad. Open could not independently verify these claims, though it is widely known that Patnaik was a literary type popular in American and British intellectual circles before he assumed his political avatar. He has three published books to his credit as an author: A Second Paradise: Indian Country Life 1590–1947; A Desert Kingdom: The People of Bikaner, and The Garden of Life: An Introduction to the Healing Plants of India.

A senior Congress leader from Odisha agrees that his party is in a bad spot. It is riven with factionalism, and desertions to the ruling party camp have hurt morale. In early March, rendering a huge blow to the party, Odisha opposition leader Bhupinder Singh (and its legislature party secretary), joined the BJD. “The wind is clearly blowing against my party,” admits the Congress leader. BJP leader Pradhan says that the very fact that Srikant Jena, once a tireless anti-Congressman, is at the helm of affairs of the Congress in the state speaks of the party’s predicament.

The decline of the Congress seems to worry some BJD leaders in western Odisha who fear that with Modi being the favourite for PM, the BJP would replace the Congress as its main rival in the state and gain an edge in the Lok Sabha polls. Political analysts have suggested that Odisha, which usually votes ‘in a similar pattern’ in both Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, may not do so this time round. “There is a Modi wave in some parts of Odisha,” agrees Niranjan Rai, a Congress symapthiser from Jagatsinghpur, where a Rs 52,000 crore POSCO project is slated to come up soon. “If the BJP had put up better candidates, they would have stood a better chance,” he adds. According to projections by Rajeeva Karandikar, 33 per cent of voters in Odisha back Modi for PM while only 12 per cent support Patnaik.

Pradhan says that the BJP will benefit from the Congress’ decline in the state and anti-incumbency against the Patnaik government, even as a ‘Modi wave’ sweeps the country. According to conservative forecasts, the BJP, which lost all Lok Sabha seats it contested in Odisha last time, is likely to almost double its vote percentage (it won 17 per cent of all votes in the state back in 2009).

For their part, BJD leaders are worried that Modi coming to power may empower the state BJP unit, which has been demanding probes of alleged irregularities in the awarding of licences and reported collusion of middlemen with the ruling party. The BJD has denied any wrong-doing. Of late, hostilities have heightened between the two former allies. “We are no longer interested in a [post- poll] tie-up with the BJD, and will have no truck with this gentleman (Patnaik),” state BJP president KV Singh Deo said recently.

Diwakar Malik, who runs a grocery show near Chauliaganj in Cuttack, says that while the perception of Patnaik being pro-poor may draw voters, businesses in the state are feeling sideswiped by the Chief Minister. “Entrepreneurs and businessmen find it extremely difficult to air their problems with the Chief Minister. He has his favourites and doesn’t entertain anyone else. There is hardly any access,” in the words of a senior corporate executive based in Bhubaneswar. BJD leaders such as Panda dismiss such complaints as wild exaggerations, arguing that the BJD government focuses on both growth and development. He reels out numbers to establish that the state had the fastest rate of growth on various social indicators under Patnaik’s rule.

Patnaik’s efforts to prove his pro-poor credentials have prompted rivals to call his party’s poll manifesto ‘an eyewash’. This document promises assistance to turn all makeshift houses into permanent structures. It envisages setting up a shelter security mission. It also promises farmers crop loans at an interest rate of 1 per cent. Women’s self-help groups, street vendors and small traders are also to be offered subsidised loans if the BJD is re-elected.

Mohapatra believes such announcements betray Patnaik’s insecurities as he faces the polls. “He has taken a lot of credit for Central schemes. It is a tragedy that the Congress is so ineffective that it can’t spread the word,” he charges.

The BJD has campaigned tirelessly on its ‘record’ of having implemented federal schemes fully and properly. The ruling party has also showcased what it claims were ‘highly effective measures’ that saved thousands of lives when cyclone Phailin hit the state last year.

The BJP is unimpressed. “He has all the weaknesses of a regional leader who either lets the family or a handful of bureaucrats handle things,” says Pradhan, “There is no democracy here in this state.”

Perhaps he is right. But if Patnaik is even slightly nervous, he betrays no sign of it. As he smiles at people standing a short distance from Brahmagiri’s famous Alarnath Temple, the once-reluctant politician looks pleased with himself—and ready for another term as Chief Minister.