What makes Naveen Patnaik invincible in Odisha politics
The Chief Minister holds absolute authority in BJD, and continues to be the darling of the masses through his populist schemes
Staying in power uninterrupted for 23 years is no small feat. But Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has managed to hold sway over the state’s politics for that many years through his deft management of party and administration, and by evoking the right measure of love among voters and fear among rivals. Odisha is set to see Assembly elections next June. With Naveen looking at a sixth straight term, there is little doubt that his time-tested formula will hold him in good stead this time, too.
An enigma to friends and foes, poker-faced and loath to delivering lengthy public speeches, Naveen defies the image of a typical Indian neta. His poor knowledge of Odia, the official language of the state he rules, continues to provide ammunition to his opponents. And yet he has been ruling Odisha uninterrupted since 2000, when he stormed to power riding the wave of public anger against the Congress which had singularly failed to manage relief and rehabilitation in the wake of the disastrous Super Cyclone of 1999.
Naveen, who made a hesitant entry into politics in 1997 following the death of his father, Biju Patnaik, the legendary Chief Minister of Odisha, has been a quick learner. While it did not take him long to shed the baggage of his Delhi days when he used to be the toast of city’s elite circles with friends like Jacqueline Kennedy and Mick Jagger to boast of, the first important lesson he learnt in politics was that ambitious friends can turn into rivals in no time and hence there was nothing wrong in dealing with them ruthlessly.
Zero tolerance to dissidence
The first friend-turned-foe who threw a challenge to Naveen was veteran Bijay Mohapatra, the political affairs committee chairperson of Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the regional party formed and named after Biju Patnaik in 1997. Mohapatra, who was on the best of terms with Naveen when the latter contested the Lok Sabha by-poll from the Aska seat that fell vacant upon Biju Babu’s death, grew ambitious within no time and started questioning the decisions of Naveen who has been the president of BJD since its inception.
Naveen’s action against Mohapatra was a political masterstroke that bore out the truth of the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold. He waited for the announcement of assembly elections in 2000 when he as the party president had the responsibility of distributing BJD tickets. Mohapatra was initially allotted the party ticket, but it was withdrawn at the last moment leaving him no time even to file his papers as an independent candidate. Ever since Mohapatra, who was a minister in the cabinet of Naveen’s father, has been out of the state assembly and been teetering on the verge of political oblivion.
Suave and urbane Naveen, who has earned the sobriquet “smiling assassin” because of his ability to make short work of his opponents without much fuss, displayed the same ruthless streak while dispensing with troublesome colleagues like former ministers Dilip Ray, Nalini Mohanty and his former advisor Pyarimohan Mohapatra. Among them Ray was the only one to get his own back by winning the Rajya Sabha election in 2002 as an independent much to the chagrin of Naveen who, for once, failed to stop cross-voting by a section of his party MLAs. But Ray, too, is now cooling his heels on the margins of state politics.
Having decimated his rivals within the party, the five-time chief minister of Odisha now reigns supreme with the BJD organisation fully under his control. All power in the BJD, the most successful regional party in the history of the state with a formidable electoral record, springs from one source— Naveen Nivas, the official residence of the chief minister in Bhubaneswar.
Connect with electorate, populist measures
Unlike most parties with a socialist tinge which become active only at the time of elections, Naveen’s BJD is a cadre-based party which is not only in constant touch with the electorate through a variety of mass contact programmes, but also receives regular feedback on its MLAs through observers handpicked by the chief minister. The system of assessing the performance of party MLAs and getting feedback on them from various assembly constituencies was put in place by Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a former IAS officer who was the confidant of Naveen until his expulsion from the party in 2012. The chief minister, who is also the president of BJD, has continued with the system which keeps party leaders on their toes.
While Naveen, thus, keeps his party battle-ready at all times he has consciously and assiduously built up the image of being a caring and pro-poor leader over the years. During the past 23 years of his rule, he has launched a slew of welfare schemes, mostly targeting women and the poor who constitute his core vote-bank. The poor, who have been receiving rice at ₹1 per kg from fair price shops across the state and meals for ₹5 at ‘Aahar’ centres in urban areas, hail him as their messiah and vote for him faithfully in every election.
Mission Shakti masterstroke
Women coming from impoverished backgrounds can’t thank him enough for seeking to empower them through Mission Shakti which is now a full-fledged department that provides several women livelihood opportunities by organising them into self-help groups (SHGs). Most of the government departments have been asked to assist Mission Shakti find new income-generating jobs for these women who once only cooked mid-day meals for school children but are presently engaged in a variety of remunerative activities.
Naveen’s abiding image in public is that of an honest politician with zero tolerance for corruption. The chief minister has sought to reinforce it during his fifth term in office by launching a transformational initiative popularly known as ‘5T’, an acronym for “team work, technology, transparency, transformation and time limit” which is Naveen’s new governance formula. While a war against graft has been launched under 5T with more than a dozen officials accused of corruption being forced to retire, the government is trying to bridge the gap between the rulers and the ruled through ‘Mo Sarkar’, a new initiative that seeks people’s feedback on the services being offered by the government.