Why Mohan Majhi must beware Naveen Patnaik: A soft veneer hides steel inside

The former Odisha CM may be down, but it would be a mistake to count him out

New Odisha CM Mohan Majhi (left) invites Naveen Patnaik to his swearing-in (file photo)
New Odisha CM Mohan Majhi (left) invites Naveen Patnaik to his swearing-in (file photo)

Ashutosh Mishra

As the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) prepared to contest its first assembly election in the year 2000, party president Naveen Patnaik invited Bijoy Mohapatra for a chat.

Mohapatra was chairman of BJD’s political affairs committee and one of Patnaik’s most caustic critics.

Patnaik’s cordiality during the meeting took Mohapatra by surprise. As this veteran—who had been a minister in the cabinet of Naveen’s father Biju Patnaik—got up to leave, his host wished him luck: Mohapatra was about to contest from Patkura, Patnaik's customary seat.

Happy with the patch-up, Mohapatra proceeded to Patkura to file his nomination. But before he could do this, he received news that the party had replaced him with a young journalist, Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak. It was too late for Mohapatra to file his papers as an independent candidate by now. And Patnaik Jr had struck.

This ruthlessness in dealing with enemies has been a hallmark of Naveen Patnaik as a politician. It is this streak, belying his soft, urbane manner, that kept him in power for nearly 25 years. BJD old-timers recall his late mother’s words: “Pappu (Naveen’s nickname) may appear soft from the outside but he has steel inside.”

As he bowed out of office, being replaced by the BJP's Mohan Majhi after an uninterrupted reign of 24-plus years—missing Pawan Chamling’s record of being India’s longest-serving chief minister (of Sikkim) by a whisker—there is intense speculation over his future.

Will Pappu quit or fight back?

The answer perhaps lies in his past.

Dismissed as a novice when he made a reluctant entry into politics in 1997 following Biju Patnaik’s death, Naveen was quick to learn the ropes.

He won the Lok Sabha by-poll from Aska, his father’s seat, a fitting answer to the critics, who were not prepared to give him even a ghost of a chance because of his Delhi upbringing and his inability to speak Odia. Those who doubted his ability to campaign — being a ‘socialite author’ who counted the likes of Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy among his friends — were made to eat crow.

Campaigning rigorously in the heat and dust of his rural south Orissa constituency, Naveen Patnaik came up roses, winning the seat by a huge margin. The sympathy factor generated by his father’s death did help; but, more importantly, voters took a liking to this man who, despite not speaking their language, was making an honest attempt to reach out. With his crumpled kurta-pajama and his ridiculously deficient Odia, he was a novelty they fell in love with instantly.

That has been the enduring image of Naveen Patnaik, undiminished by his ruthlessness towards political rivals and his perceived weakness for his long-time aide, bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian, who is now being blamed for the BJD’s debacle.

Patnaik’s popularity soared as his government launched a string of welfare schemes to empower women and raise the living standards of the poor. His relentless drive against corruption earned him the tag of ‘Mister Clean’. In his last innings as chief minister, he came up with transformational governance initiatives like ‘Mo Sarkar’, to bridge the gap between the people and their government and to enhance transparency.

With zero tolerance for corruption, Patnaik sent even his own ministers to jail when they faced graft charges. He did all this despite the risk of backlash, a case in point being former minister Pradeep Panigrahi, who was jailed on corruption charges and then expelled from the BJD. Panigrahi got his own back by winning Berhampur, this time on a BJP ticket.

Naveen Patnaik is not one to regret such decisions, however.

He is often portrayed as the antithesis to his father: his shy, self-effacing manner contrasts starkly with Biju-babu’s flamboyance and extroverted nature. But he has inherited his father’s grit and determination.

These traits will be tested now, as his party sits in the opposition for the first time in 24 years. There could even be attempts to break up the BJD. The vexed issue of succession could be used to engineer a split in the state’s longest-surviving regional party. Some of its senior leaders, arrested in the past in connection with the chit fund scam, fear the cases against them may be revived.

While the BJP won all but one of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha in a spectacular and unexpected sweep, it has a comfortable but thin majority in the assembly, where it won 78 seats (74 being the halfway mark). It will, however, be bolstered by the support of BJP rebels who won as independent candidates.

Still, the BJD, with 51 members, and the Congress with 14, could prove to be a formidable Opposition force in Odisha for Majhi's BJP team.

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