At 70, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has had several avatars. He has been a painter, author, an expert on Indian designs and handlooms and a politician. In the 1970s, Patnaik and Rajya Sabha member Naresh Gujral used to jointly run a business and had a shop at one of Delhi’s five star hotels.
But, for the past 17 years, ever since he first became the chief minister in the year 2000, the people of Odisha know Patnaik as their spotless but uncommunicative and grim faced leader. However, the last month and a half has changed that.
If its success in the panchayat elections in Odisha in February emboldened the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to host its national executive meet in Bhubaneswar, and make efforts to end the Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD's) 17-year rule in Odisha in 2019, the results have also spurred Patnaik to have an image makeover.
Patnaik, who was believed to be suffering from severe health complications, is now seen more frequently in public. He is proactive on social media, tweets frequently and is indulgent towards any who might want to take selfies with him. Patnaik has also taken to interact more often with party colleagues rather than relying on his bureaucrats. At his press conferences, Patnaik no longer leaves before replying to questions from journalists when earlier he would leave after reading out the statement.
Days after the panchayat poll results, Patnaik and his author sister Gita Mehta visited a popular bookstore in Bhubaneswar and milled with the youth there. When a six-year-old girl in Kendrapara district saved her friend from the jaws of a crocodile, Patnaik invited them to meet him and even clicked a selfie. “Thrilled to meet little braveheart from Kendrapara Tiki and her friend Basanti. Worthy occasion for my first selfie with the heroes. Proud,” he tweeted.
After the communal tensions in Bhadrak, Patnaik was quick to visit the area and interacted with the people. He has also been keener to dismiss rumours of his party heading for a split or about him being in ill-health. Earlier this month, Patnaik visited Delhi. He sat in Parliament’s Central Hall, interacted with other leaders like West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and also met journalists to tell them how BJP’s success in recent panchayat polls was a flash in the pan. The BJD, he pointed out, still won in an overwhelming majority of the seats, while the BJP won in areas where earlier the Congress was strong.
On Monday, in an effort to counter the publicity blitzkrieg of the BJP national executive meeting and projection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the state, Patnaik’s party will mark the 20th death anniversary of his father, the legendary Biju Patnaik.
Alive to the BJP trying to appropriate some of the icons of the state, Patnaik has also been keen to launch schemes in the memory of saint Bhima Bhoi, freedom fighter Veerendra Sai and others. He has also been sitting in party review meetings and had recently rung out changes in the youth and students’ wings.
But most of all, Patnaik now smiles more often when in public.
Patnaik took to politics when he was already 50.
In 1997, his father Biju, a legendary Odisha politician and chief minister of the state from 1990 to 1995, passed away. Patnaik, who had studied and spent most of his life outside Odisha, found himself in the tumult of state politics.
Apart from Hindi and English, Patnaik spoke fluent French but not the language of his state’s 40-odd million people, Oriya. To be fair, it isn’t his mother tongue. Patnaik's mother Gyan, who died in 2009, was a Punjabi from Lahore.
But none of this stopped the people of Odisha in laying their trust in him. By 1998, Patnaik was a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. In 2000, his party, the BJD, in alliance with the BJP, formed the government in Odisha. Patnaik hasn’t lost an Assembly election since.
There have been hiccups on the way, particularly after the Kandhamal riots in 2008, which made Patnaik part ways with the BJP. He handsomely won the subsequent elections in 2009. Odisha was also a rare state that remained untouched by the Narendra Modi wave in 2014, with Patnaik’s party winning 117 of the 147 Assembly and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats. The panchayat election results and Modi's ever increasing popularity across India, including in Odisha, has made BJP a potent challenge in the state.
Patnaik doesn’t have a successor. The people of his state respect him, but are looking beyond him. They believe Modi is the leader who can fulfill their aspirations.
But Odisha goes to the polls in 2019, and two years is a long time in politics — at least enough for a politician to reinvent himself.