The Solitary Reaper


Naveen Patnaik

Rohini MohanRohini Mohan, Principal Correspondent

A GROUP of white-clad middle-aged men stand around in the portico of the tellingly named Naveen Niwas in Bhubaneswar, holding bouquets and sporting grins of varied wattage. “Chief Minister will come at 5 o’clock,” informs a perspiring PA. On the dot, Naveen Patnaik emerges from a hallway in his trademark white kurta and pyjama. The man just elected chief minister of Orissa for a third consecutive term receives the bouquets and shakes extended hands, his face incongruously emotionless in the surrounding delirium. As he starts to speak, a man stoops to touch the chief minister’s feet. Patnaik stops talking mid-sentence. “What do you think you’re doing?! You’re an MLA, for God’s sake.”

From the novice he was 12 years ago, Naveen Patnaik is today a politician who can stun a nation. Oriyas believe he has triggered the revival of regional politics in the state, that he is a lone man who has changed the way Orissa is perceived by the rest of the country. Until he was 50, Patnaik had lived abroad, and Orissa was but a vacation destination. It all changed dramatically when his father and veteran leader Biju Patnaik died in 1998. The urbane son renounced his partying days in London, left behind his high society friends like Mick Jagger and Robert de Niro, and came back home. He took his father’s dream forward, forming a new political party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).

Since he became chief minister in 2000, he has not missed a single day at the assembly and has not left the country. He tours the state twice a month, meeting people at their doorstep, checking on local bureaucrats unannounced. Everything he does is a conscious effort to immerse himself in the political life, motivated by the ghosts of his father’s achievements and the crumbling, poverty-ridden state he is responsible for. Yet, in little things, like his visceral impatience for sycophancy, and his business- like advice in English to bemused legislators, Patnaik lets it slip. He is still, and perhaps will always be, an outsider.

“It is perhaps because he did not grow up in Orissa, and comes from such a privileged background that he feels it is incumbent upon him to reach out to people,” says Jai Panda, BJD MP and Patnaik’s close aide. “He’ll never be a typical politician. For 12 years, he has always done counter-intuitive things. And every time he has gone against conventional wisdom, he has reaped the benefits.” The first file Patnaik signed as chief minister put corrupt mid-day meal contractors behind bars. He then sacked top leaders of his father’s government — his own party men — on charges of graft. Naveen Patnaik became instantly despised in the BJD. But the ‘clean image’ stuck, and his public popularity soared. “Our country loves to idolise heroes,” says Damodar Raut, a senior leader in the BJD. “In Naveen babu’s case, what makes him a hero is that he is Biju Patnaik’s son, and he is an educated, well-to-do man. People know he doesn’t need a single rupee from the state treasury.”

In his entire political career, the only time Patnaik’s image suffered a massive dent was after the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal. The BJD had been in a ruling alliance with the BJP since 2000. As mobs from the BJP’s sister organisations — the RSS and VHP — forced Christians in Kandhamal to convert to Hinduism, burnt houses, raped women and killed thousands for 40 long days, Patnaik did not rush to action. Suddenly, Christians and secular Hindus were not sure their chief minister was perfect. Orissa has arguably one of the largest population of Hindus in a state, and Kandhamal’s large number of Christians was an exception. They constituted less than one percent of the BJD’s vote bank. The media that adored the English-speaking Patnaik for his lifestyle change grew worried that he wasn’t what he seemed. Was the stability of his government more important to him than the lives of his people? Did his secular image actually hide a moral ambivalence about Hindutva?

Orissa’s chief minister says he is secular, clean, earnest. A crumbling state is desperate to believe him

Many months later, in March 2009, Patnaik made a television appearance again, to unexpectedly announce that he was severing ties with the BJP. He said the BJP had demanded an unreasonable number of seats for the 2009 polls. In a few days, he offered another explanation, “Kandhamal was the last straw. Every bone in my body is secular.”

HOWEVER, THE real catalyst for the public break-up had come after the Kandhamal riots. In local body elections across the state in January, the BJD contested alone, against the BJP, and swept the polls. “After that, it was clear we did not need the BJP,” admits Pyarimohan Mahapatra, chief strategist and political advisor to Naveen Patnaik. “Since we were a new party in 2000, we had entered into a marriage of convenience with the BJP to beat our arch-rivals in the state, the Congress.” Mahapatra says he started realising that the BJP was a liability. “When we arrested VHP members involved in the Kandhamal violence, BJP MLAs began to publicly protest against our government. Then they asked for more seats in the 2009 elections despite having no electoral standing. It was time to end the relationship.”

In the recent polls, the BJD won a whopping 103 assembly seats out of 147, and 14 parliamentary seats out of 21. A beaming Patnaik came on television news channels again. “It is the people’s vote for peace and harmony,” he said, “Also, the BJD has won because of our pro-poor measures.” Both claims are suspect. Kandhamal has voted BJP MLAs to power. Even though one of them, Manoj Pradhan of Udaigiri constituency, is still in jail for allegedly murdering Christians.

Patnaik’s main pro-poor measure — giving 25 kg of rice every month at Rs 2 to families below the poverty line — was started only in August 2008. If it had been successful, the BJD would have had the vote of the poorest people. But in the first phase of polling in western Orissa, which includes the starving regions of Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput, the BJD won only 32 of 70 assembly seats. In Kalahandi, it was a Congress candidate who won, with an overwhelming vote share. The BJD’s sweep came later, in the more prosperous areas of coastal Orissa that polled in the second phase, where it won 71 of 77 assembly seats.

“The pro-poor stance is only an image,” says Dhirendra Panda, a Bhubaneswarbased activist, “What Naveen Patnaik is, is pro-corporate. Since he came to power, he has signed MoUs for at least 45 steel industries to mine in the state.” Incidentally, Orissa has the largest number of anti-industry and anti-mining people’s movements in the country. “In the 80s, people protested for more compensation,” says environmentalist Prafulla Samantra, “In the last 20 years, it has changed to full blown protests against mines. People don’t want them because they’ve seen that these modernised industries exploit more than they employ.”

BJD’s Mahapatra vehemently denies that Patnaik is pro-corporate. “Naveen has not sought out investors. His clean image attracts investors like Tata Steel, POSCO, Arcelor Mittal, and Vedanta to come on their own. It’s because we have investment in the state that we’re able to fund programmes for the poor.”

On January 2, 2006, police firing had killed 12 villagers protesting the Tata Steel plant in Kalinga Nagar. This incident only made people’s movements grow stronger. Of the 45 steel investments, only two have been able to start operations. BJD MP Jai Panda says the government has been “non-violent and tolerant”. “Industrialization is slowing down because we care enough to not lynch people, but the patience is worth it to get people on our side,” he says. Panda also points to a valueadd policy of investment, in which the government asks investors to not simply extract minerals, but also set up jobcreating industries, schools and training centres right here in Orissa.

Patnaik says his win was a vote for peace and pro-poor measures. Both claims are suspect

Environmentalists and critics believe the BJD is sure to misconstrue its victory as an endorsement of pro-industry measures. They expect the BJD to be more aggressive in industrialisation, and people’s movements to escalate in the absence of strong Congress opposition. JB Patnaik, former chief minister and Congress leader, confesses his party lost because of infighting and dismal organisation. “Today, we’ve no alternative leadership to Naveen Patnaik. He may be a good person, but he isn’t a great politician. He wins because there’s no one to challenge him.”

So is this a simple case of being at the right place at a politically uncompetitive time? The BJD’s secular credentials rest purely on its leader’s secular image.

The party’s relatively bad performance in the poorest districts disproves that the 2009 verdict is an explicit thumbs-up from the poor. What Patnaik can get credit for is persistently invoking his failsafe persona as the earnest leader, the good man, the secular liberal, every time his government’s popularity wanes. The media too love him for this, even if his interviews to the print media are rare. Given that every politician in Orissa seems to think the secret behind the BJD’s success is “the image of Naveen babu”, perhaps there is advantage in simply being a good man. And knowing it.


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