Published : The Week/
Naveen Patnaik has a penchant for history, and he is intent on making his stay in power historic. In his 25th year in politics—of which 22 have been as chief minister—Patnaik has developed an overarching presence in Odisha. He has run the state with a group of handpicked bureaucrats and leaders, which his critics say is a coterie that helps him keep an iron grip on Odisha. It also ensures that there is no alternative to him, within and outside the party, yet.
Under Patnaik, Odisha has gone from starvation deaths to food security, and from being at the mercy of nature to becoming a role model in disaster management. “I have seen his career development. He is very methodical,” said party MP Pinaki Misra. “He is like a chess player, he knows how to move pieces at the right time. Like a grandmaster, he can play several players at a time, tailoring his moves for each one of them.”
What has helped Patnaik retain his electoral edge is that he has confined himself to Odisha, shunning national ambitions and a desire to influence Delhi politics. “We are guided by Odisha’s interests; whoever can give the state the best deal, we will support them,” said Patnaik, signalling his equidistance from both the BJP and the opposition grouping ahead of the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.
Patnaik, now 75, continues to be an enigma to the outside world. Until 50, he had a non-conformist lifestyle. He ran a boutique, Psychedelhi, from Delhi’s Oberoi Hotel, and hobnobbed with the rich and the mighty. He stayed in his family bungalow on tony Aurangzeb Road (now A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Road), in which he still has a 50 per cent share, valued at Rs43 crore.
Everything changed after his father, former Odisha chief minister Biju Patnaik, died in 1997. On then prime minister I.K. Gujral’s instance, he agreed to contest from his father’s seat, Aska. The victory was a turning point in his life.
Since then, Patnaik has been, at least in the public eye, a kurta-pyjama-wearing spartan. His two offices—one at the state secretariat and the other at home—give a glimpse into his personality.
At home, which he inherited from his parents and of which he owns a one-third share valued at over Rs9 crore, a new office was built for him during the pandemic. At the secretariat, his wooden chair has survived with torn leather for years. The room is full of books on culture, history, politics and policy. The cabinet meeting room has also resisted change. Only the broken tiles have been replaced, creating a colour mismatch hard to miss. “We ask him to get the chair changed, or even the cabinet room refurbished, but he refuses every time,” said a bureaucrat.
Patnaik once had an official Maruti Esteem that he used for years despite its poor condition. “Being over six-foot tall, it was a problem for him to get into the car, yet he refused to change it,” recalled a close aide. “Until, one day, it stalled in the rain. But, instead of going for an SUV, he insisted on an equivalent model. Hence, new Maruti Suzuki SX4s were bought.” As for his personal collection, Patnaik owns a 1980 Ambassador, now valued at 06,434.
“He always had a spartan streak,” says Misra, who has known Patnaik since the 1990s, when they met at social dinners in Delhi. “The fact that he travelled and knew rich celebrities did not mean that he partook of that life. Mahatma Gandhi did not give up [his comforts] overnight; he did it over 20 years. He (Patnaik) did it overnight in 1997. He is as well-adjusted with the poor as he is with royalty.”
Though Patnaik might be a man of few words, what with his basic Odia and his clipped English accent, his empathy took him and his politics to the grassroots.
Said R. Balakrishnan, a retired IAS officer and Patnaik’s chief adviser: “The state existed at the periphery earlier, and was ignored. No major company or PSU had its headquarters here. Politically, neighbouring states were powerful. But the way progress has been made, it is like the periphery is becoming the centre. Look at the hockey World Cup, temple restoration and many role-model policy initiatives. The state is no longer trying to survive; it has broken all stereotypes associated with it.”
Some of Patnaik’s supporters call him an outlier in the current political landscape. “His politics is built around good governance and clean politics,” said the BJD’s Rajya Sabha member Sasmit Patra. “His speeches are hardly five to 10 minutes, unlike other leaders who speak for hours. He never attacks his opponents. He never talks about caste, creed or religion. He is the same as he was 25 years ago. The teflon coating he has is his service to the people. He has turned around the state.”
One of the most successful measures the Patnaik government took was creating and supporting women’s self-help groups. Usha Manipadhiary, who heads a self-help group in Balasore, said: “My husband had gone down the spiritual path and I had nothing to fall back upon. When the self-help group was set up with the government’s assistance, it created an identity for me. I brought in more women to the group and helped others deal with their crises.”
These groups have given Naveen babu or Naveen baba—as he is sometimes called—a dedicated following and a captive vote bank. “I will continue to support him till I die,” said an emotional Usha.
A new initiative that is winning Patnaik many admirers is a health scheme—Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana—wherein beneficiaries get Rs5 lakh (men) and Rs10 lakh (women) pre-loaded in cards. It reportedly covers 96.5 lakh families. One among them is Lakshidhar Pati, a 66-year-old mason from Puri, who was brought to Bhubaneswar’s Care Hospital with chest pain. His artery was blocked and he was given a stent. “First I went to a local dispensary in Puri, which referred me to the Bhubaneswar hospital,” he said. “Once I was here, it was easy.”
Pati was lucky to get treatment on time. Some other beneficiaries THE WEEK spoke to said there was still some confusion as sometimes the hospitals turned them away. Officials conceded that there were some teething problems that were being addressed. One year into the scheme’s inception, more than 2.6 lakh people have availed of the services; the government has received claims worth over Rs1,000 crore.
Patnaik knows that it is not just the schemes, but the followup that matters. His private secretary, V.K. Pandian, said that under the ‘Mo Sarkar’ initiative, all officers, ministers, and sometimes even the chief minister call up beneficiaries to get feedback. Some are taken aback; most express their satisfaction. “Sometimes we do get negative feedback about a particular branch or an official,” said Pandian. “Then we get more feedback on that particular unit or person. If it is serious, action is taken.”
Pandian has been with Patnaik for more than a decade. Apparently, the chief minister first noticed him during a meeting of collectors in 2006, when Pandian raised the issue of the state government not doing enough for sportspersons. At the time, Odisha’s dietary stipend to sportspersons was half of what the Sports Authority of India was giving. Patnaik immediately took up the suggestion, saying that the government could build one bridge fewer, but had to give its athletes the same amount for food.
In the same meeting, he instantly approved another idea about giving sanitary napkins to girls. It is this promptness in approving and implementing ideas, along with his eye to spot talent, that has held Patnaik in good stead.
Pandian also helms a one-of-its-kind policy initiative. Under the 5T (teamwork, technology, transparency, transformation and time limit) programme, the performance of government officials and projects is judged on these five factors. “Every department is given targets and a time limit,” said Pandian. “They are asked what transformation they can bring. It is not just progress; transformation is the key.”
With Odisha improving in basic parameters, the government now has to serve a generation that has not seen penury. The millennials are aspirational, and could pose a challenge to Patnaik’s appeal in the long run. To engage with this new class of voters, the state has made a conscious shift in the past five years. The focus is now on projects like holding the Hockey World Cup in 2023 (Odisha hosted the 2018 edition as well), building a heritage corridor around the Shree Jagannatha Temple, turning government schools into smart schools and implementing the new health scheme.
In one of the government schools THE WEEK visited, in Pipili, teachers were playing YouTube videos on smart TVs. “Since we built smart classrooms, our enrolment has increased,” said headmaster Pitabas Sethi. “Even students from private schools are joining us.”
Patnaik’s close aides say that to understand him, one has to understand his emotions, which are based in empathy. Balakrishnan, who had also worked with Biju Patnaik, recalled how Naveen, from his early days in power, had always insisted on taking schemes to the last person in the queue. “Once we were travelling in a remote area, and a pregnant women, also a widow, came in front of the car,” he said. “She needed help. Naveen was so moved that he kept enquiring whether help had reached her. This empathy was also visible during Covid-19, when Odisha was the only state where no migrant walked.”
In the last financial year, Odisha became one of the fastest-growing states in the country. According to government figures, it registered 10.1 per cent growth against India’s growth rate of 8.8 per cent as per the first advance estimates. The state’s per capita income of 048,499 in 2011-12 reached 01,27,383 in 2021-22. The industry sector, whose share was only 17 per cent of the gross state value added (GSVA) in 1993-94, has jumped to 39.5 per cent in 2021-22.
“Naveen babu started out at a difficult time,” said Misra. “The state budget then was Rs3,000 crore; now it is more than Rs2,30,000 crore. We are larger than Gujarat in terms of budget. Now we no longer hear stories of mango kernels being eaten in Kalahandi or children being sold for food. His food subsidy programme—01 for a kilo of rice—is being followed by all states. Today, Odia boys and girls are as well built as any children from other parts of the country.”
The effective delivery of services and schemes has been made possible by an empowered bureaucracy. “It is a golden age of bureaucracy, as we are able to work freely without any pressure,” said a young bureaucrat.
This reliance on bureaucrats is often held against Patnaik. When he made the transfers and posting system transparent and moved it online, many politicians, including some within his own party, were miffed. They said a key feature of their engagement with the public had been taken away, making them powerless.
Patnaik had even faced a coup from his bureaucrat-turned-politician confidant Pyari Mohan Mohapatra in 2012. Patnaik was on his first visit abroad as chief minister, and had to cut it short to tackle the crisis. There has been no coup attempt since.
“People who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat the follies of the past,” said Misra. “His interest in world history is very close to his heart. He learns from it.”
Said Pranab Prakash Das, the BJD’s general secretary (organisation): “He conducts his own surveys and checks what the public thinks of the leaders. He never compromises on development, peace and harmony. He takes feedback from his political colleagues. He has zero tolerance for corruption and indiscipline. When it comes to people’s interest, no one is important.”
Though the BJD has been winning elections, the immediate concern is the BJP’s growth. In the 2019 assembly elections, the BJP went from 10 to 23 seats and increased its vote share by over 14 per cent. In that year’s Lok Sabha elections, the party increased its vote share by 17 per cent to reach 38.4 per cent. The BJD won 42.8 per cent of the votes, but lost eight of its seats. The BJP won seven of those.
The national party recently appointed Sunil Bansal, who had earlier worked in Uttar Pradesh, as its Odisha in-charge. “It is a babu log sarkar (government run by bureaucrats),” said BJP state vice president Prabhati Parida. “The work that was happening when the BJP and the BJD were allies has stopped. They started programmes like 5T, which only made the bureaucrats powerful. Executive power has been reduced. The MLAs cannot monitor schemes and corruption is at its peak—the cut for the bureaucrats is 35 per cent.”
The BJP wants to win 120 of the 147 seats in the next assembly elections. “We won 23 seats, and we were second on 55 seats with a margin of less than 5,000 votes,” she said.
The BJP thinks that Odisha, with its rich cultural heritage, could be a natural fit for its hindutva narrative. Apparently realising this, the BJD has taken a spiritual route, which includes the Shree Jagannatha Temple corridor project. Patnaik had parted ways with the BJP in 2009 after the horrific Kandhamal riots. He has maintained social harmony in the state since.
During his second visit abroad, in June, Patnaik reportedly became the first chief minister to get an audience with Pope Francis. He also visited the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, and on his return attended the Puri Rath Yatra. “Every bone in his body is secular,” said Misra.
Patnaik may be at odds with the state BJP, but he shares a good equation with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He was the first chief minister to support Droupadi Murmu’s candidacy for president, and has supported most of the Centre’s legislations in Parliament. He has, however, blocked some Central schemes, like Ayushman Bharat, because he had his own.
The third force in the state is the Congress, which has set a target of 90 seats in the next elections. “He (Patnaik) has no vision,” said state Congress president Sarat Pattanayak. “After 25 years, he has not done anything for the people. He had assured two lakh jobs every year. By that claim, 44 lakh youth should have gotten jobs. About 1.34 lakh posts are vacant. No one can stay forever. Look at the communists [in West Bengal]. I am touring the state, and our main fight is with the BJD.”
The BJD, however, rubbishes the talk of the opposition making gains. “People understand the language of Naveen’s work,” said Das. “He is good in delivering [on promises]. He stays equidistant and does what is best for the state.”
However, there is one key question that hangs in the air. Who after Patnaik? “We are not thinking about that,” said Misra. “He is fit to rule for more terms.”