In April this year, the man who might have been the political heir of Odisha strongman Biju Patnaik, died at 63, pretty much unsung. Nalinikanta Mohanty became an MLA at 26, served six terms in the Assembly and became public works minister in the Naveen Patnaik government after a two-decade political career but was sacked unceremoniously in 2001, a year after Naveen became chief minister.
Naveen said he was asked to go because there was a “shadow of corruption” over him. The list of ministers whom the CM has fired on charges of corruption is now 20-odd — the last one to join it being Pramilla Mallick, who was asked to resign as minister of woman and child welfare in 2011 because of her alleged involvement in the “dal” scam.
All these sackings have ensured for Naveen the image of an implacable, ruthless administrator and anti-corruption crusader. Little wonder then, that although he doesn’t speak Oriya, is a connoisseur of all fine things, be it food or wine, and probably secretly sympathises with Shashi Tharoor’s disdain for cattle class travel, he has served three terms as chief minister of Odisha. The latest feather in his cap is wresting the initiative to name the opposition’s choice of president, as an associate admiringly observed, while controlling just three per cent of the electoral college.
A complex, lonely guy, Naveen Patnaik. Of all Biju Patnaik’s children, he was considered the least likely to join politics. Welham Boys and Doon School prepared him for little other than being a gentleman around town. His friends at Doon recall him as a shy but charming boy with beautiful hands: he was a gifted painter with deep interest in history — and absolutely none in politics. Biju Patnaik was an irascible wealthy socialist who liked fine wines and cigars as much as liberty and equality. But nowhere was there even a hint in the way the children – Naveen, brother Prem and his sister Gita, who is a gifted writer – were brought up that they would embrace politics. That change came about only when Biju Patnaik died and Naveen contested from his constituency Aska as a member of the 11th Lok Sabha.
Naveen founded the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), learning from the mistakes of others like contemporary leader and heir to the Andhra Pradesh empire Chandrababu Naidu, who got ideas above his station and attempted to emerge as a national leader. Naveen stayed in Odisha, developed and plotted the course of the BJD with his only priority being consolidating the regional party.
He didn’t have to work too hard. When the BJD-BJP coalition came to power first in 2000, it had to do very little to establish its credentials. There were so many corruption charges against the discredited J B Patnaik government that when Naveen began a clean-up operation, and even put bureaucrats behind bars, it took very little effort to earn for his government the image of a corruption-free administration.
State elections were due in 2005. He advanced them to coincide with general elections in 2004. This round, he fought on the back of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s popularity and the advantages accruing from the Congress’s installation of J B Patnaik as Pradesh Congress Committee chief just before the elections. For reasons that are not clear to anyone, the people of Orissa voted for Vajpayee the leader, but BJD the party. The BJP’s tally suffered and Naveen became even more powerful than before. Finally, in 2009, after the murder of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati and the violence against the Christians of Kandhamal, he shrugged the BJP off altogether. Ask any observer of politics in Odisha who represents the opposition in Odisha and the answer will be: nobody. The Congress and the BJP are both too weak and too compromised, weighed down by factional politics.
So how has Naveen Patnaik managed all this? Nalinikanta Mohanty was sacked ostensibly for corruption. But he was also the BJD president and there were murmurs of meetings of contractors at his residence along with groups of MLAs. Because Naveen has punished corruption doesn’t mean there is no corruption in the government — but it matters only when it cuts too close to the bone.
In his second term, Naveen decided to develop the state... Posco, Arcelor Mittal, Tata Steel… money began pouring in. He needed the bureaucracy to manage the flow of money and get things done. Unlike J B Patnaik, who encouraged a committed bureaucracy, Naveen did not ask his bureaucrats to kowtow to ministers. The bureaucracy in Odisha is not exactly on collision course with its political masters but it is acting confident in the knowledge that in the event of a conflict, it is the civil servant the CM will back. Sensing this, politicians are on edge but don’t know how to hit back at the chief minister.
Lately, Naveen has developed a new tactic. Earlier party affairs used to be left to others. He would stand aloof and act as final arbiter in clashes between groups. But now, he is addressing party matters himself, dealing with the problem of every district personally. The upside of this is he knows every individual and can forestall groups building up against him. The downside is, he is now getting drawn into day-to-day conflict management.
Whether Purno Sangma wins the presidential election or not, history will record that Naveen Patnaik, who was a bit player in the electoral college, forced the man on the job. This would suggest you have to take him seriously.