Odisha | What next for Naveen Patnaik?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi being greeted by former Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik during the swearing-in ceremony of new Odisha government, in Bhubaneswar, on June 12, 2024. Photo: PTI

Odisha | What next for Naveen Patnaik?

Naveen Patnaik looks more cheerful than ever after the BJD has been unceremoniously voted out of power. Can he make a comeback?

Naveen Patnaik's demeanour has surprisingly changed ever since his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) suffered an embarrassing defeat at the polls and he was unceremoniously voted out of power.

Unlike in recent years when the normally reclusive Patnaik walked slowly and spoke haltingly at the rare public appearances he made, the now former chief minister of Odisha has a spring in his steps. He meets party men in hordes, smiles constantly, and is visibly surefooted while walking.
The cheery transformation is rather remarkable. But his physical appearance apart, can he be as confident and gung-ho about his own political future?

BJD chief and former Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is all smiles during a meeting with the party workers from different regions in Bhubaneshwar. Photo: PTI

End of a long reign
Age is no longer on Patnaik's side. The 77-year-old Odisha patriarch is facing what could be best described as a depressing end to his long career as a public figure following the recent electoral debacle.
The manner his BJD was made to bite the dust at the simultaneous polls for 21 Lok Sabha seats and 147 assembly seats in Odisha was plainly distressing. Patnaik's party won no Lok Sabha seats. In the Assembly, the baton of power has passed on to the Bharatiya Janata Party ( BJP) for the first time in the state. The BJP won 78 seats, while the BJD secured only 51.
It ended Patnaik's 24-year reign, just a few months shy of breaking the all-time record set by Sikkim's Pawan Chamling as the country's longest-serving chief minister. Voted out, it is very unlikely that Patnaik can regain any of his lost glory.
Though no longer in power, Patnaik still enjoys a lot of goodwill. As the tallest leader in his BJD and perhaps in the whole of Odisha, he can be the leader of the Opposition in the assembly, but perhaps little beyond that. Even if the ruling BJP government fails to deliver and gets unpopular, common wisdom suggests that Patnaik will not be in a position to bounce back and become the chief minister again when elections are held next in 2029. He will be 82 years old then and there is no guarantee that his fragile health will hold.
Holding BJD together
Patnaik, though, can hope to keep his BJD intact and ensure that it remains on track to reclaim power someday. His immediate task would be to protect his flock from splitting and his BJD to survive possible BJP attempts to poach and weaken his party.
In this endeavour of his, Patnaik perhaps will count on his trusted lieutenant and former IAS, VK Pandian. Though singularly credited with sinking the BJD by wresting the party campaign and projecting himself as Patnaik's potential successor, indications are Pandian continues to enjoy Patnaik's unstinted support and trust.
Stung by the popular disapproval of his exalted status, Pandian has announced his decision to withdraw from 'active' politics. His dream of ruling the state someday has rudely ended.
But nothing prevents Pandian from operating from behind the scenes. He could continue to operate from Naveen Niwas - the private home of Patnaik - and help the former chief minister in keeping tight control over the party.
A formidable force
Pandian — born in Tamil Nadu — can also possibly draft in the services of his IAS wife Sujata at a later date to step into Patnaik's shoes. Sujata is an Odia, and none of the Opposition tirades that dented Pandian as an outsider and an affront to Odia Pride will work against her. The couple can hope to exploit the political capital left by Patnaik to their advantage.
Though the party in the literal sense could be over for an ageing Patnaik, the same cannot be said either for BJD or Pandian.
The BJD remains a formidable force. Pandian too can rely on his reservoir of guile. Together, they could have a future beyond the election reverses they suffered.
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