Lord Juggernaut Calling Delhi

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No scandal. No charges of nepotism. Naveen Patnaik has turned Odisha around without any baggage. Will this astute and ruthless politician make the capital switch, asks Ashok Malik

Naveen Patnaik
Forward march: Patnaik has evolved as a politician who knows his state well, Photo: Shailendra Pandey

IS NAVEEN PATNAIK positioning himself as kingmaker — or king? Through the past week, as the Odisha chief minister led a multi-party, multi-state assault on the UPA government’s design of the National Counter-Terrorism Centre (NCTC), many did wonder. Was Patnaik, one of the most astute, successful and ruthless chief ministers of 21st century India but also perhaps the most underestimated, planning a big move?

As the long countdown begins to the next Lok Sabha polls, many regional leaders — particularly those not aligned to the Congress or BJP — are beginning to explore options and wonder if they can win bigger influence in a prospective UPA coalition. Some of these regional chieftains — from Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal to J Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu to N Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra Pradesh — were part of the NCTC pressure group. Yet few, if any of them, are as well placed as Patnaik.

Unlike the ladies in Kolkata and Chennai, he is not worried about the organisational rigour — though limited immediate electoral effectiveness — of a CPM and a DMK. Unlike Naidu, he has no fears about a YS Jaganmohan Reddy. Unlike Mulayam Singh Yadav and Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, he can seriously contemplate a clean sweep of all Lok Sabha seats in his state. Odisha has 21 parliamentary constituencies. The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) won 14 in 2009. That number is set to increase.

There is reason for the prediction, and it came this month with the results to the Odisha panchayat elections. Of the 854 zila parishad seats, the BJD won 643. Of the 30 districts in the state, the party now controls zila parishads in 26 on its own, and with the likely help of independents in two others. Even Narendra Modi does not have this sort of dominance in Gujarat.

Ever since he took the newly-formed BJD to its first state government in 2000, Patnaik has not lost a single set of elections. There has been the occasional by-poll defeat, but every Lok Sabha, Assembly and municipal and panchayat election has seen the BJD ahead of its rivals. In every successive election, the party has increased vote share.

In the previous panchayat election in 2007, the BJD won 338 zila parishad seats. It finished ahead of the Congress (300 seats) but only just. The BJP was then still a national ally of the BJD but the beginnings of a divorce were evident. The two parties contested the 2007 panchayat election separately and the BJP won 148 seats. Today it is touching 25, and the Congress 100. Naveen Patnaik is unchallenged.

WHO WOULD have predicted this? In 1997, Biju Patnaik, businessman, bon vivant and Odisha’s political superstar, died. He left his state and his constituency, Aska, orphaned. The Biju legacy seemed over. Once a Congress stalwart, Biju Patnaik had broken away from the party in the Indira Gandhi years. By the 1990s, his party — the Janata Dal — had disintegrated. The Congress was back in power in Bhubaneswar, and the BJP was the rising force.

Biju Patnaik had left no heir. He had kept his two sons and one daughter — the author Gita Mehta, famous, to those old enough to remember it, as the author of Karma Cola — far away from politics. Naveen Patnaik himself was known as a writer, a connoisseur of the arts, a socialite in New Delhi as much as New York — anything but a politician.

After his father’s death, Aska sought a candidate from Biju Patnaik’s family, and Naveen stepped in. He founded the BJD and joined hands with the BJP, climbing up in those early years with a combination of sympathy for his dead father, and the incremental support the BJP and Atal Bihari Vajpayee brought in. Few expected him to last. Even party veterans, those who founded the BJD with him, thought he’d fade away and doubted he had the stomach for a 24/7 life in Bhubaneswar, a sleepy state capital far removed from the metropolitan bustle Naveen Patnaik was used to.

Several of his early colleagues were waiting for him to fail, hoping to capitalise on his freshness and father’s name before supplanting him. It was reminiscent of the Congress’ scheming strongmen, who looked upon Indira Gandhi as a “goongi gudiya” (dumb doll) when they pushed her into the prime ministry in 1966. Like the first Mrs G, the second Mr Patnaik was to turn the tables.

He took to politics with an unusual seriousness. Whether it was a sense of mission or merely a sense of curiosity, the fear of exploring the unknown or the deployment of a trenchant intellect, he brought a method to his party from moment one. This has been evident in, for example, candidate selection.

Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is Lok Sabha member from Kendrapara, the seat Biju Patnaik held on to as the Congress swept the rest of Odisha in the 1984 Lok Sabha election. He is also Naveen Patnaik’s chief lieutenant in New Delhi. As he explains, “In the absence of primaries, the BJD has a very rigorous, very professional and very scientific system of opinion polling before deciding on candidates for constituencies.”

Ever since he formed the BJD government in 2000, Patnaik has not lost a single set of elections in Odisha

All parties conduct internal opinion polls. The BJD stands out for not just being a pioneer among regional parties but for using opinion polls to gauge the public mood at various stages in its term, not only before elections.

That Naveen the politician was going to be an ocean apart from Naveen the pre-politician was also apparent in Patnaik’s conduct of personal relations. This is a man who knew the beautiful people in Delhi and Mumbai better than almost any other legislator. Today, Mayawati is disparaged by her critics for acquiring property in the heart of Delhi, in Chanakyapuri, and permanently scarring her chief ministry. In Patnaik’s case, he had a house on Aurangzeb Road — inherited from his father and representing some of the most expensive real estate east of the Suez — before he became chief minister.

 Tribal protests over Posco and Vedanta have posed problems, but the CM feels these projects are good for the state’s economy in the long run
Conflict zones: Tribal protests over Posco and Vedanta have posed problems, but the CM feels these projects are good for the state’s economy in the long run, Photos: (Top) Reuters, (Above) PS Thakur

That aside, there was the endless list of friends and acquaintances — all of them now potential favour-seekers. It had the makings of a crippling entourage, with every third person at a power party in Delhi having the potential to claim that he could — or knew someone who could — ‘manage the Orissa CM’.

This has never happened, not once. Those who thought they could manipulate Patnaik have learnt the hard way. A well-networked socialite, famous for her intellectual soirees, and an old, old friend of Patnaik’s, was dropped from his inner ring because she made the cardinal mistake of calling him by his nickname — “Pappu” — on TV. Furious and determined not to allow this breach of protocol and exhibition of familiarity to go unpunished, Patnaik cut off contact. Only in recent years has order been restored.

It is no wonder then that his closest friends — and they include columnists Tavleen Singh and Swapan Dasgupta, television anchor Karan Thapar, aesthete Martand ‘Mapu’ Singh and BJP politician Vasundhara Raje — simply refuse to talk about Patnaik. “He’s among my oldest friends,” one of them says, “and I have a pact with him that I will never speak about our friendship.” In Bhubaneswar as well, Patnaik pays social visits to just two or three homes, Panda’s being one of them.

This ascetic style may not be a function of merely political compulsions. Patnaik, who shared a hostel room at Doon School with Sanjay Gandhi, has always been a private person, in the manner of the Lutyens’ Zone aristocracy — natural snobs who instinctively see themselves as embodying India and use only each other as reference points.

THE RELATIONSHIPS and networks in this community are both complex and contradictory. Patnaik knows the Gandhis — Sanjay and Rajiv, and then Sonia — better than most people in the Congress ever have. He counts many of their confidants — Romi Chopra, Kamal Nath, Arun Singh — as friends as well. At a personal level, Biju Patnaik’s equation with Indira Gandhi was excellent — even if they were politically hostile to each other, and Indira subjected Biju to tax raids and imprisonment during the Emergency.

This has left Naveen Patnaik with a certain distrust of the Congress political tradition. It would explain his anger at what he considers unfair provisions of the NCTC and the capacity to use them to harass political opponents and non-Congress state governments.

The federalist impulse is a natural corollary. “About four years ago,” says Panda, “Naveen Patnaik led the chief ministers of five states, including Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, in a protest against the Central government’s proposed mining law because it was hurting mineral-bearing states. He is a reticent person but has not been reticent about asserting Odisha’s rights.”

His early colleagues expected him to fail but like the first Mrs G, the second Mr Patnaik was to turn the tables

The clash with the UPA was inevitable, even though the Congress thought at one stage that he was ripe for wooing and would leave the BJP for an alliance with the ruling establishment in New Delhi. When Patnaik demonstrated a policy of deliberate and determined equidistance from the UPA and the NDA, the mood soured.

His big economic projects — Vedanta’s aluminium facility and POSCO’s giant steel plant — began facing Congress opposition and, under Jairam Ramesh, more environment ministry scrutiny than the BJD thought they merited. “To be fair,” says a Patnaik associate, “the Congress is divided. Jairam played his tricks. But the prime minister and Montek Singh Ahluwalia have been very supportive on the POSCO issue.”

Nevertheless, the Union government has managed to delay things. Patnaik also felt it was less than just in 2008-09 when natural disasters of similar magnitude, human damage and economic devastation hit Orissa (Mahanadi floods), Bihar (Kosi floods) and West Bengal (cyclone Aila). West Bengal got over Rs 1,000 crore in aid from New Delhi; Odisha had to make do with Rs 25 crore.

WHEN PATNAIK first went to Odisha as head of government, his unfamiliarity with the state and faltering Odia were almost a joke. For many, assessments of the man remain frozen in that time, with those clichéd stories. In reality, he has evolved dramatically. “Talk to him today,” says a friend, “and he can rattle off information about virtually every district, the nearest rail-head, the cropping pattern. He now knows his state extremely well.”

Knowledge has bred wisdom. Patnaik recognised Odisha’s richest resources – iron ore and bauxite — would need to be harnessed within the state rather than simply dug out and exported. His policy of value addition and of incentivising and making mandatory the processing of minerals in the state itself has created jobs and augmented tax revenues. In turn this has given him money to spend on welfare programmes. In a few short years it has converted Odisha from the basket-case of eastern India to its most exciting economy, and changed its profile altogether.

In the decade since 2002, Rs 1 lakh crore of investment — POSCO and Vedanta of course, but Tata Steel, the Jindals and the Aditya Birla Group too, not to speak of several smaller firms — has come into Odisha. This is money that is actually in the state, not just promises. In the previous 50 years taken together, Odisha had got barely 5 percent of this figure.

Jay Panda is the BJD’s most articulate face in the corridors of Delhi
Close confidant: Jay Panda is the BJD’s most articulate face in the corridors of Delhi, Photo: Vijay Pandey

On 13 February 2012, ASSOCHAM released a report on investment proposals received by various Indian states. With Rs 12 lakh crore, Odisha was beaten narrowly by Andhra Pradesh and finished fourth. Gujarat ( Rs 16 lakh crore) and Maharashtra ( Rs 14 lakh crore) were the others ahead of it. Even Karnataka and Tamil Nadu were way behind.

A decade or two ago, this would have been unimaginable. Patnaik has made Odisha India’s hottest emerging economy, having caught up with traditional heavy-weight states. Through his three terms, the state’s GDP has grown at over 9.5 percent a year. In the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2012-17) Odisha envisages GDP expansion of 8.8 percent per year.

This has translated to more money for the state government. In 2000, Odisha’s budget was at about Rs 3,000 crore. In 2012, it is six times larger. Revenues have grown and four years ago Odisha wiped out its deficit (though it’s come back again).

Patnaik has used this money well, and got it to pay for a series of welfare programmes. Pinaki Mishra, MP from Puri and a recent entrant to the BJD, confesses his admiration for the model: “Rural roads, a subsidised rice programme, pension schemes for the poor and women, rural electrification, and clearheaded implementation of these programmes – this is the BJD’s big achievement.”

THE UPSHOT of all this is the beginning of 2012 finds Naveen Patnaik at his zenith. The only point is the same line could as easily and accurately have been trotted out at the beginning of 2011 or 2010 or several of the past 12 years. This unusual dynast — a second-generation politico who was not groomed by his father, and entered public life at 50 — is untouched by scandal or charges of nepotism, has no baggage and seems to enhance his popularity by the minute.

So will Odisha’s Lord Juggernaut move to New Delhi? The conventional idea is he would not risk his chief ministry for a possibly short-lived prime ministry. Nevertheless ambition — or in Patnaik’s case a mix of boredom and curiosity – may well propel him to the national capital.

Is this thought working its way through his mind? Frankly, nobody knows. Even his party brass can only try and second guess its leader. A man who clearly loves the company of his friends, Patnaik is also, at one level, a complete loner. He has no soulmates in his party, and nobody who can claim to know him entirely.

Pyarimohan Mahapatra, a former civil servant who was Biju Patnaik’s principal secretary in the Chief Minister’s Office in Bhubaneswar in the early 1990s, is his party manager and fund-raiser. Panda and to a lesser degree Misra lead a bunch of astonishingly articulate BJD MPs in New Delhi. They all have their uses, but Patnaik makes sure none uses him.

He has seen off close to a dozen challengers, including such powerful men as Dilip Ray, coal minister in the NDA government and a man Patnaik suspected was collecting blessings for the BJD without transmitting them. The crackdown was swift and merciless.

Patnaik has made Odisha India’s hottest emerging economy, having caught up with the heavyweights

It happened with AU Singh Deo earlier this month. Friend of Patnaik’s for 60 years, mate at Doon School and excise minister in Odisha, Singh Deo was sacked after a hooch tragedy. A leading member of the infuriatingly complex and politically hyperactive former royal family of Bolangir — and father of Kalikesh Singh Deo, part of the BJD’s smart set in New Delhi — Singh Deo is believed to have paid for secretly negotiating a deal with Ponty Chadha.

Maybe he forgot to tell his boss. Patnaik, who needs nothing more than his pack of Dunhills, two pegs of Famous Grouse and a target to demolish to make his day, seized his chance when the hooch tragedy offered itself. It was beautiful, as the cold-blooded, cynical pragmatism of a power practitioner always is. In Patnaik’s case, it deserves a prime ministerial stage.

Ashok Malik is Contributing editor, Tehelka.
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