Odisha: Is this retired babu going to be Naveen Patnaik’s successor?

Nothing moves in the state without the knowledge and permission of 2000-batch IAS officer V. Karthikeyan Pandian

Naveen Patnaik and V.K. Pandian (photo: @bjd_odisha/X)
Naveen Patnaik and V.K. Pandian (photo: @bjd_odisha/X)

Ashutosh Mishra

V. Karthikeyan Pandian, the 49-year-old Tamil Nadu-born bureaucrat-turned-politician, is the man heading the ruling Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) war room as the party gears up for the impending poll battle with the aim of registering a sixth straight win.

For the 2000-batch IAS officer, the transition from bureaucracy to politics has been rather smooth, thanks to the blessings of his boss, chief minister Naveen Patnaik. Pandian served as private secretary to the chief minister for more than a decade before opting for voluntary retirement in October last year.

His retirement was the talk of the state’s bureaucratic and political circles because of the alacrity with which it was accepted by the Centre, applying for voluntary retirement on 20 October and being relieved from service on 23 October.

More importantly, within 24 hours of quitting the country’s most elite service, he was appointed chairman of 5T (transformational initiatives), a governance reform initiative, and Nabin Odisha, a newly launched rural development scheme, with the rank of a cabinet minister. An order issued by the state’s general administration department said Pandian would be working directly under the chief minister.  

A month later, he joined the BJD, where he remains the virtual number two after the chief minister, who is also party president. As the eyes and ears of his septuagenarian boss, Pandian now controls both the government and the party.

Nothing moves in the state without his knowledge and permission. From top bureaucrats and politicians to industrialists, everyone seeks his good offices as it is common knowledge that he controls the levers of power. Pandian’s bureaucrat wife Sujata R. Karthikeyan leads the Mission Shakti department, tasked with women's empowerment.

His interference in the affairs of the ruling party was well known even before he quit the IAS. With his formally joining the BJD, it has become clear that Pandian is the man who not only shapes and executes the party’s strategies, but also negotiates with leaders of other parties on its behalf.

The buzz in Bhubaneswar’s corridors of power is that he deals directly with seniormost BJP leaders like Union home minister Amit Shah who, according to sources, played a vital role in getting his VRS application accepted within three days.

Shah had a one-to-one meeting with Pandian during his visit to the state in August last year. BJD insiders confide that during the meeting, not only was the VRS issue finalised, but the possibility of reviving the BJP-BJD alliance — which had collapsed in 2009 — was also discussed.

Alliance talks gained momentum after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the state on 5 March, which was preceded by his principal secretary Pramod Mishra’s visit to Bhubaneswar. Pandian is believed to have been in constant touch with Mishra, who is also from Odisha.

He is said to have been keen on the revival of the BJP-BJD alliance with his own future in mind. “Given the BJD’s excessive dependence on chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who has been its infallible poll mascot, the fear of the party collapsing after he is gone must be playing on the minds of the likes of Pandian. In such a situation, an alliance could act as a cushion. He needed this to protect his own interests and those who might have benefited from his patronage,” said a BJP leader, requesting anonymity.

But alliance talks failed primarily on account of resistance from party cadre on both sides. Unwilling to accept a patch-up after 15 years of rivalry, they appeared to be in a rebellious mood, which could have hampered the poll prospects of both parties. The two also failed to reach an agreement on certain key seats which derailed the talks, paving the way for their entry into the poll arena as rivals once again.  

V.K. Pandian at a public event (photo: @MoSarkar5T/X)
V.K. Pandian at a public event (photo: @MoSarkar5T/X)

However, the possibility of BJD lending support to the BJP in the post-poll scenario in the event of the NDA coming back to power is not being ruled out. "The BJD has done it in the past and may do it again if the BJP-led NDA returns to power as it suits both the sides.

"As in the past, the BJP may need BJD’s backing on crucial issues inside Parliament while the BJD would expect the government at the Centre to continue its generosity toward Odisha, which has to battle natural disasters like cyclones almost every year,” said political analyst Shashi Kant Mishra.  

Much, however, would depend on Pandian, who now calls the shots in the BJD and enjoys the full backing of Patnaik. The efficiency of this former bureaucrat, who began his career as the sub-collector of Dharamgarh in Kalahandi, once counted among the most backward districts of the country, has never been in doubt. He also had an extremely satisfying stint as collector of tribal-dominated Mayurbhanj district.

However, it was his tenure as the collector of Ganjam, the home district of Patnaik, that brought him to the chief minister’s notice. Pandian is credited with having ramped up the pace of work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) in the district, which sees widespread migration of labour. His innovative measures like transfer of wages directly to bank accounts of labourers helped eliminate the possibility of corruption in the implementation of labour-intensive government schemes.

Patnaik, who was hugely impressed with Pandian’s dynamism, appointed him as his private secretary in 2011 and, in 2019, entrusted him with the additional responsibility of the 5T initiative.

However, the outcome of this election will be crucial for both Pandian and his boss. If the BJD wins a comfortable majority, it will further consolidate Pandian’s place in the party to the extent that he may position himself as Patnaik’s political successor, a subject on which Patnaik himself has maintained a stoic silence so far.

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