Patnaik and Pandian
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik (left) remains hugely popular but many of his supporters distrust IAS officer-turned-BJD leader VK Pandian, described as a 'modern-day Rasputin'. File photos

Will Patnaik's popularity overcome antipathy for Pandian in Odisha?

Many among those who admire Patnaik are in a bind – torn between their affection for the CM and the undemocratic way in which he imposed Pandian on them

The endearing popularity of Naveen Patnaik has never been in doubt. Ever since he debuted in politics in 1997 and became the Chief Minister of Odisha three years later, he has remained electorally undefeated.

But, re-seeking a sixth straight term, he faces a rather strange challenge: to overcome the perceived antipathy towards his deputy and chosen successor, V Karthikeyan Pandian.

Though the clear favourite to win, at least in the elections to the 147-member Assembly if not in the polls for 21 Lok Sabha seats to be held simultaneously in the state, Patnaik is battling a fair degree of anti-incumbency.

But, more importantly, he is also up against a sizeable section of the population intrigued and unimpressed in varying degrees by his choice of the Tamil Nadu-born former IAS officer to lead his regional Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and possibly the government at a later date.

Pandian’s rise and rise

Pandian has been a kind of lightning rod ever since he was the secretary to the ageing Chief Minister. Controlling all access to the patriarch, his near-total dominance over matters related to the ruling party and the state administration has long been a subject of speculation and heartburn.

But, now that Pandian has quit government services and formally joined the BJD, his mega-sized footprint and how it could impact Odisha's future have emerged as predominant election issues.

True, Patnaik has an edge against a prickly Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) doing its best currently to turn the tables on him, after having been in what seemed to be an unofficial alliance with the BJD for years. There is also the Congress that is in the fray against him.

Odisha's 'Rasputin'

Yet, above everything else, Patnaik's principal challenge this time is the adverse perception that people generally hold against Pandian for being an “outsider” who has usurped extraordinary power and influence. In rarefied circles such as clubs and bars, it is not uncommon for Pandian to be described as a “modern-day Rasputin”.

Odisha's present-day obsession with Pandian, as reflected in conversations at ordinary homes, roadside tea stalls and social media, is proportionate to his all-encompassing presence in the ongoing election campaign.

It is Pandian, as Patnaik's deputy, who is crisscrossing the state and addressing most rallies. Patnaik, at best, is making a few guest appearances here and there.

Growing unanimity

From Bolangir in Odisha’s interiors to Puri, close to capital Bhubaneswar, there is growing unanimity that the elections this time round will be a stiff test of Patnaik's popularity. Will the goodwill that Patnaik enjoys be enough to override the groundswell of antipathy for Pandian?

The upcoming vote allows the 4.5 crore Odias to speak out and give their verdict. But for an ink attack and a few stray protests, they have had little say over Pandian's meteoric rise first as the Chief Minister's all-powerful secretary, and now as the second-most important leader in the BJD.

None sought their permission when Patnaik foisted Pandian on them. Even ruling partymen's approval was not sought when an unelected Pandian overnight turned into BJD's principal campaigner.

Love and distrust

Pent up emotions are being voiced readily and freely as the elections approach. On display are both the co-existing affection for Patnaik and the distrust for Pandian.

But for die-hard opposition supporters, many a voter sipping tea at the stalls dotting the highway from Bhubaneswar to Puri say they love Patnaik. "We have come to share an emotional bond with the Chief Minister," they insist.

The bond has only acquired a touch of sentimentality over the years. With the 77-year-old Patnaik in his twilight years, many Odias hold the view that it would be immoral not to vote for the Chief Minister in what could be his last election.

But there is no guarantee that all would vote for Patnaik following Pandian's skyrocketing importance. The BJD Number 2 has put off many, steeling the resolve of particularly those who are not ardent Patnaik fans to vote against the BJD.

Patnaik or Pandian?

The presence of Pandian – a non-Odia leading the charge of what is essentially an Odia outfit – has also pushed many fence-sitters to the rival camps.

Even many among those who are in awe of Patnaik admit they are somewhat in a bind torn between their affection for Patnaik and the undemocratic manner in which he has imposed Pandian on them. With an increasingly infirm Patnaik gradually receding to the background, there is growing talk on who actually will wield power if the former is re-elected for another term.

And, God forbid, what if Patnaik exits the political stage in next five years? Who steps in then?

A sizeable section gathering round the tea stalls see Pandian more as an interloper. "That we like the Chief Minister does not mean we like his choice too." "Where did Pandian come from? He is not one of us." The conversations got increasingly animated over more cups of tea.

Will Patnaik trip?

Therein lies the catch for the elections in Odisha this time. Patnaik – a bachelor who has never had to carry any family baggage – remains popular.
But, for once, he is being made to carry the burden of a trusted lieutenant who seemingly has not won the trust of the people.
Whether Patnaik's popularity will suffice to overcome the popular lack of enthusiasm for Pandian is what is to be seen.
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