Tamil babu Pandians unpopularity sinks Naveen Patnaiks popularity in Odisha
Known for his unique ability to read people's minds, Patnaik miserably failed this time to judge the unpopularity of his decision to thrust on the state his erstwhile private secretary VK Pandian as his virtual successor. Photo: PTI

'Tamil babu' Pandian's unpopularity sinks Naveen Patnaik's popularity in Odisha

Pandian’s growing influence in BJD and governance and Patnaik’s failing health gave little confidence to voters to trust him for another term

Odisha is notorious for cyclones that ravage it from time to time, such as in 1999 when a particularly nasty one killed some 10,000 people.

The latest storm to hit the state on June 4 though was political in nature. But it exacted a heavy toll too, violently rocking the steady ship of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and leaving his ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) grievously wounded with the possibility of any rescue and recovery almost ruled out.

The momentum has clearly slipped away from Patnaik and shifted in favour of the opposition. In Lok Sabha elections for Odisha's 21 seats, the opposition BJP is winning the most. In polls for the state’s 147 Assembly seats, the BJD’s share has drastically slipped.

Curtains down on Patnaik’s innings

And it is unlikely that Patnaik – uninterruptedly at the helm of Odisha since 2000 and just shy of breaking the all-time record set by Sikkim's Pawan Kumar Chamling as the country's longest-serving chief minister ever – will overcome the debilitating blow dealt by this virulent hurricane.

Already 77 years old and visibly in poor health, Patnaik does not have age on his side. With a comeback literally ruled out, the reverses suffered by his BJD at the simultaneous polls held both for 21 Lok Sabha seats and 147 assembly seats in Odisha will in all certainty bring the curtains down on Patnaik's otherwise illustrious political career.

For a politician of his rare calibre, the end was rather inexplicable. Known for his unique ability to read people's minds, Patnaik miserably failed this time to judge the unpopularity of his decision to thrust on the state his erstwhile private secretary VK Pandian as his virtual successor.

Pandian phenomenon

Odias overwhelmingly detested the choice of Pandian – a Tamil Nadu-born IAS officer who came to work in Odisha only on marrying a colleague. Viewed as an outsider forced on the people in an undemocratic manner, Pandian made matters worse for Patnaik. He literally hijacked the party, sidelining most BJD leaders. The more he monopolised and ran the BJD's election campaign almost single-handedly with Patnaik making only guest appearances, the greater was the revulsion against him.

The electoral verdict gives voice to the deep sense of outrage that a majority of Odias silently nursed at the former bureaucrat's oversized influence over all matters in the state – both the government and the ruling party. The Opposition, led by the principal opposition BJP, rightly sensed the disquiet and campaigned aggressively to protect what it projected as endangered Odia Asmita (Odia pride).

Finally, Pandian's runaway unpopularity dwarfed the enduring popularity that traditionally existed for Patnaik. The normally reticent BJD patriarch still retained a lot of goodwill and respect. But the Pandian phenomenon coupled with anti-incumbency accrued over the years sunk his political fortunes in Kalinga that otherwise had remained his fiefdom for the last quarter of a century.

Political suicide

How and why an uncanny politician such as Patnaik failed to read the popular mood and let matters go so out of hand remains a mystery. One reason could be that his advanced age prevented him from being hands on and stop the slide. Opposition leaders including none than the Prime Minister Narendra Modi also alleged that he was being held hostage by a clique led by Pandian.

In hindsight, Patnaik seemed to be on a mission to commit political harakiri. That a regional party like BJD which claimed to promote local identity was seeking to impose a leader from outside cut little ice. The party spent lavishly and ran a glitzy campaign, claiming the chief minister had transformed the state for the better. They called it ‘rupantar’ (transformation).

But a majority of Odias disagreed. Their lived experiences were in sharp contest to the tall claims. While Odisha has progressed on some fronts including reducing poverty and cutting down on infant mortality, it lags behind the national average on several scores such as drinking water coverage in rural areas. Unemployment and inflation are soaring too with rampant migration of Odias seeking livelihood in other states.

The pressing issues that remained unresolved dented Patnaik's standing. People trusted him in the past. But now that Pandian was more in charge shook the faith that people traditionally had on his BJD. Patnaik's ageing leadership gave little confidence too. It gave a fresh opportunity to the BJP which exploited it to its full advantage. Patnaik was finally felled by the storm of disapproval that swept the state.

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