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An ending & new beginnings

A 5-term CM gets a drubbing in Assembly and Lok Sabha polls, his powerful aide who quit IAS to join politics leaves that arena too, BJP pulls off a surprise with its CM pick — Odisha’s taking a new disha, made even more interesting by Naveen Patnaik’s rare appearance at oath-taking

An ending & new beginnings

Odisha Chief Minister Mohan Charan Majhi (right) greets predecessor Naveen Patnaik at Naveen Niwas in Bhubaneswar. ANI



Aditi Tandon

Naveen Patnaik’s rare public appearance at the oath-taking ceremony of Odisha Chief Minister Mohan Charan Majhi of the BJP hit the headlines last week, garnering as much, if not more, attention as the change of guard in the eastern state after over two decades. This was the first time in years that the 77-year-old Biju Janata Dal chief was seen engaging with people, striking conversations with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other top BJP brass without VK Pandian, a former aide, by his side.

VK Pandian, who is being largely blamed for the BJD’s defeat.

RSS stamp on Odisha CM pick

The choice of a watchman’s son and a senior Santhal tribe leader, Mohan Charan Majhi, as the first BJP Chief Minister of Odisha fits a pattern and bears the stamp of RSS, the ruling party’s ideological mentor. Majhi, 52, grew up in Keonjhar Sadar region’s Raikala, pursued law and taught at the RSS-run Saraswati Shishu Vidya Mandir before entering politics. A four-term Keonjhar MLA, he eventually outpaced Odisha BJP heavyweights — state BJP chief Manmohan Samal and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan — in the CM race. Earlier, the BJP had turned a new leaf by resting state stalwarts in favour of grassroots workers with RSS roots in three states — Bhajan Lal Sharma, Mohan Yadav and Vishnu Deo Sai as CMs of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh. They have all cut their teeth in RSS institutions before they became full-time BJP workers.

Until June 12, when Patnaik made that exceptional visit to the swearing-in event of the newly elected BJP government, a common belief across Odisha was that he could not move even a yard without Pandian’s help. The belief was cemented when Pandian, widely seen in Odisha as Patnaik’s shadow, began holding microphones every time his boss appeared on stage to make an election speech.

These actions triggered suspicions around Patnaik’s health, provoking Prime Minister Modi to ask whether the formidable regional satrap, who ruled Odisha uninterrupted for 24 years, was actually so ill or was his illness merely a projection, a conspiracy by forces ruling Odisha in Naveen’s name. Political observers in Odisha now say that the incredible tales and images mirroring Patnaik’s absolute dependence on Pandian, the controversial bureaucrat-turned-politician, for everything personal to political, was long feared to become the BJD chief’s nemesis one day.

That day was June 4.

After 24 years of Patnaik’s reign, BJD was decimated in Odisha, down to 51 in the 145-member Assembly and wiped out from 21 Lok Sabha seats of which the BJP swept 20 and the Congress took one.

NAVEEN AND PANDIAN

Old-timers recall the fortuitous arrival of IAS officer VK Pandian in Naveen Patnaik’s CMO 12 years ago in 2012. This was exactly around the time of a bitter parting between Patnaik and his former powerful adviser, Pyarimohan Mohapatra, who attempted a BJD coup in the CM’s absence and fell from grace forever.

“Before Pandian came on the scene, Naveen Patnaik depended on Mohapatra, another bureaucrat-turned-politician, for advice and support. Until the two fell out in May of 2012, it was Mohapatra, more than Naveen, who was turning the levers of power in Odisha, much like Pandian was doing in the post-Mohapatra era,” notes journalist Kuldeep Singh, with long years of experience in covering Odisha.

Singh says Patnaik, a political greenhorn at the time of his entry into politics in 1997, trusted bureaucrats, primarily Mohapatra, who was principal secretary to his father Biju Patnaik, the CM from 1990 to 1995.

Senior BJD leaders also often speak of Patnaik as an astute politician who won elections but did not want intimate involvement with the day-to-day affairs of governance. It was only a matter of time before Patnaik’s trust quotient shifted from Mohapatra to Pandian.

After Mohapatra’s exit, Pandian took complete control of BJD, even distributing election tickets. BJD sources point to the 2019 poll cycle when several top leaders were denied nominations by Pandian and had been unable to petition Patnaik because Pandian would not let them meet the CM.

Interestingly, Pandian, a 2000-batch IAS officer, was originally from the Punjab cadre but opted for Odisha after his marriage to Sujata Raut, a bureaucrat from the Odisha cadre.

He moved quickly to earn the trust of his master and in no time was controlling both Naveen Patnaik’s CMO and the BJD.

“The BJD lost the 2024 elections — state and Lok Sabha — because of Pandian, who isolated Patnaik from the party and the people. The day Naveen Babu lost, three of my domestic helps cried bitterly, reflecting the deep affection and sympathies people still have for the BJD chief. Dependence on Pandian did Naveen Patnaik in,” says Odisha-based political commentator Rabi Das, whose government accommodation was cancelled by the Pandian-controlled BJD government after he wrote an article calling the former bureaucrat a “super Chief Minister”. Das is fighting the case in court.

As for Pandian, the former private secretary to Patnaik took voluntary retirement from service (VRS) in November 2023 to join the BJD full-time and soon became the sole source of information to Patnaik, who remained incommunicado at his Bhubaneswar residence Naveen Niwas, while BJD leaders wandered around in a political vacuum.

“Pandian brought Naveen Babu to believe that the BJD was winning elections, come what may. He kept proclaiming publicly that he would quit active politics should Naveen Patnaik lose. The BJD did not fight the election. There was no effective counter to BJP’s campaign push led by PM Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and a host of leaders. It was almost as if the BJD was consciously ceding space to the BJP in the state. After Pandian recently announced retirement from politics, apologising to the BJD paribar for any hurt he may have caused to the party prospects in the state, conspiracy theories about Pandian’s intent gained ground in the state. People have been talking about possible Pandian-BJP links,” remarks Rabi Das, noting that on the BJD’s behalf, Pandian led the pre-poll alliance talks with the BJP. These talks, however, fell through.

WHO IS TO BLAME

Conspiracy theories apart, many BJD old- timers hold Patnaik responsible for the 2024 poll outcome. A former BJD leader who recently joined the BJP said Odisha has rejected a regional party and opted for a national party after 24 years.

“The blame for what happened cannot be attributed to individuals alone. It is the result of the BJD losing its path. The BJD was formed to fight the Congress misrule, corruption and nepotism, but today it has become synonymous with all these negativities,” a former BJD leader says.

To paint the contrast in the BJD’s functioning then and now, this leader recalls the year 2001 when Naveen Patnaik as CM sacked three Cabinet ministers within minutes, noting that “a shadow of corruption had fallen on them”. In 2024, the BJD gave tickets to those charged with murder. “The BJD has come to be viewed as a protector of the corrupt,” the ex-BJD MP says.

PATNAIK STILL A FORCE?

Even after the power centre in Odisha shifts to the BJP and Majhi, locals are not writing off Naveen Patnaik just yet, even though he faces a succession challenge with no inheritor in sight and age not on his side. Many swear by the command Patnaik has on the popular Odia imagination and his once-legendary connection with the masses, which has been frayed in recent times, especially after Covid-19 when he began a period of complete reliability on Pandian, barely moving out of home.

Since the BJD’s rout on June 4, Patnaik has been regrouping and meeting party leaders — defeated and victorious both — to chalk the way forward. BJD sources say Patnaik is likely to assume the role of Leader of Opposition in the state Assembly and may form a committee to run the party affairs until a successor emerges.

Patnaik, conscious of the fact that his family may not throw up a successor again, has already said the people of the state will choose his political inheritor. In 1997, too, he had entered politics only after his two elder siblings — Prem Patnaik and Gita Mehta — had declined. Gita is no more. Prem Patnaik lives in Delhi and has a son.

“Times are not the same as in 1997 when Naveen Patnaik reluctantly took the political plunge to fill a void left in Odia politics by the demise of his father Biju Patnaik. Naveen Patnaik won his first LS bypoll from his father’s Aksa seat and was re-elected to the Lok Sabha in 1998 and 1999,” Akash Kumar, a Cuttack-based political observer, says.

In 1998, Patnaik became a Union minister in the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led NDA government. He remained a minister when Vajpayee took oath as PM again in 1999. Meanwhile, Patnaik had founded the Biju Janata Dal which, in alliance with the BJP, went on to rule Odisha till 2009.

In 2009, the allies parted ways following the 2008 anti-Christian Kandhamal riots after Mohapatra convinced Patnaik that the BJP was a liability. Post 2009, Patnaik, a five-term CM, ruled by himself, becoming the second longest serving Chief Minister after Sikkim’s Pawan Kumar Chamling.

A RECLUSE

Those who followed Naveen Patnaik in his early years describe him as a remarkable phenomenon. Author Ruben Banerjee, who wrote Patnaik’s biography, says unlike other politicians, who love to corner headlines, the non-Odia-speaking Patnaik is rarely seen on prime time TV and heard even less.

“Naveen Patnaik is perhaps the quietest politician in present-day India, never raising his voice and creating the least din.... And unlike his father’s roller-coaster ride, Patnaik’s political journey has only seen an upward trajectory,” Banerjee writes.

He recalls Patnaik’s spectacular journey from the Doon School days, where the BJD chief was Sanjay Gandhi’s classmate, to being a permanent fixture in Delhi’s most exclusive party circuits, where he routinely rubbed shoulders with the well-heeled and powerful. Naveen, in his younger days, lived in his father’s New Delhi residence on Aurangzeb Road, now APJ Abdul Kalam Marg. He authored three coffee table books (‘A Second Paradise’ on the Indian country life from 1590 to 1947; ‘Desert Kingdom’ on the Rajputs of Bikaner and ‘The Garden of Life’, a compendium of medicinal plants and species). He even ran a boutique called Psychedelhi from the premises of Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel and his clientele included the fabled Beatles, says Banerjee.

On the former Odisha CM’s political acumen, his biographer says the key to Patnaik’s success is that even though he has indulged in political machinations and subterfuge, he has largely come out of it unblemished, skilfully sidestepping scrutiny. “Patnaik is still viewed by many as innocent and incapable of the vileness of an ordinary politician. And when something goes horribly wrong in the state, there is always someone else who shoulders the blame, sparing Naveen any taint,” says Banerjee.

This time, VK Pandian has become the fall guy. Signing off from active politics the other day, Pandian apologised for causing hurt to anyone. “I am sorry if the campaign narrative against me has had a part to play in the BJD’s loss,” said the former Patnaik aide, leaving his mentor’s side after 12 years.

#BJP #Lok Sabha #Naveen Patnaik


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