A new biography of the Odisha Chief Minister deftly answers the most common question about him — what makes Naveen Patnaik tick?
Naveen Patnaik. Ruben Banerjee. Juggernaut. 256 pages. Rs 469.
In the early 2000s, growing up as a teenager in Bhubaneshwar, there was a lot of change one had to keep up with. The brick by brick rebuilding of the state after the super cyclone, new flyovers, new information technology companies, murmurs of world-class universities and massive steel projects, probably the first cell phones in the family and even the first outlet of Café Coffee Day in the city right next to school. It looked like a time of endless possibilities and change on the horizon, much like the age I was at. And a new, white clad, suave, English-speaking chief minister seemed to fit right into that motif of impending change and hope. The state, which quite a bit of India could not locate on a map, suddenly had a chief minister, who apparently was friends with the Kennedys of the United States. The state which had given up on its political elites, who were mired by corruption, nepotism, rape charges and general indifference, suddenly had a chief minister, who had the legacy to bank on but strangely none of the baggage associated with it. Naveen Patnaik brought with him scepticism but somehow it was overpowered by hope and a little bit of mystery.
School, college, Bachelors, Masters and three jobs later, the intrigue surrounding Patnaik continues. Orissa has become Odisha, Bhubaneshwar has become an educational hub, multiple cyclones and floods have come and gone, the communists have been ousted from Bengal and Tripura, India has seen two new prime ministers, the political colour of the country has changed but Patnaik, his enigma and his power is uninterrupted.
Ruben Banerjee’s new book on Naveen Patnaik finally attempts to decode this uninterrupted power and enigma. Banerjee is a seasoned journalist and has followed Odisha politics for decades and has had a vantage position to observe Patnaik as he manoeuvred his way through to ultimate, unquestioned, one-man rule. Agree or disagree with Patnaik, love or hate him, he is a phenomenon, who just cannot be ignored. Eighteen years of uninterrupted power. Eighteen years of power in a state, where the opposition is decimated. Eighteen years of decimating the opposition where he is the only leader in his party. Eighteen years of being the only leader in his party when he does not even speak the language of the people he represents. It is easy for any political enthusiast and writer to lose sight of objectivity and get overawed by the political legacy.
But, Banerjee has a wonderfully detached way of documenting the contemporary history of Odisha while decoding the motivations of the reticent and quiet protagonist of his work. What could have easily turned into a hagiography if written by a lesser author, is a taut and balanced narration of all that Patnaik is, good, bad and debatable. The question that most people have about Odisha is, what makes Patnaik tick? What is the secret sauce that beats anti-incumbency and which nothing from corruption charges to laggard development to the Narendra Modi wave could touch? To his credit, Banerjee through the course of the book gives his readers numerous insights into what is the combination that could make him work.
Naveen Patnaik benefited heavily from the legacy of his father, the much adored Biju Patnaik and the goodwill and respect for Biju Babu rubbed on to his political heir. But, unlike other dynasts, Naveen Patnaik has surpassed the legacy of his illustrious father and that is no mean feat. The contrast between the two is evident. The boisterous, active, garrulous Biju Babu versus the quiet, collected, detached Naveen Patnaik. Banerjee highlights the fact that though Naveen Patnaik was not a natural fit for a politician in Odisha, he realised that by virtue of his position, he really did not owe anything to anyone. And like a seasoned politician, he did not harp on this fact but put his foot down at the right moment. Banerjee narrates the well-known story of the ouster of Bijay Mahapatra, a loyalist of Biju Babu and a founder member of Biju Janata Dal. Even as a rookie in politics, Naveen Patnaik was adamant that the final approval or cancellation of party nominees should rest with him as the party president. Caught up in his unassuming behaviour, curiosity and general politeness, no one attributed any motive to this demand. But, like a master chess player, Patnaik made his move during the assembly elections of 2000. On the last day of filing nominations as Mahapatra sat at a PAC meeting in Bhubaneshwar, Patnaik cancelled his nomination from Patkura. A handful of people had knowledge about his move and by the time news started filtering in, just two hours were left for the nominations to get closed. Not even adequate for a car ride back to Patkura. Mahapatra was stabbed in the back in an almost silent assassin like move which no one could have associated with Patnaik.
This is the one thread that Banerjee has elaborated upon deftly in his book, and it comes without any judgement. The one thing that perhaps has separated Patnaik from the rest in his party, in his state and in the country is the almost ruthless instinct to consolidate power. Banerjee does not show this as symptomatic of vengeance but as self-preservation, as a calculated political strategy to curb dissent and opposition right at the root. Never one to reveal his cards, Patnaik lets people believe that he is being controlled by others while all the time being the master strategist and the brain behind all that he does. The deep seated political security in him does not require displays of power at all moments. Just complete control of it. None of his close confidantes from Pyari Mohan Mahapatra to Baijayant Panda were allowed to emerge out of his shadow. Patnaik’s style of political alienation is brutal, ruthless and almost absolute pushing his adversaries towards almost decimation. Look at what happened to his alliance partner Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the state. While reading the book, one might wonder whether all the noise about bureaucrat V K Pandian controlling the Chief Minister is true or is the truth the other way round?
Banerjee also discusses the role of the carefully cultivated political image of Patnaik which all politicians could learn from. Patnaik is polite, does not have a coterie and importantly does not give away a word more than what he intends to. There are no wry jokes, no personal attacks on others, no hanging around in controversial company, no unmeasured words or interviews, no personal life, that any political opponent or constituent could throw muck at. He is detached to a fault and hence no one or nothing has any hold on him. Add to this, the initial aggression with which he developed his anti-corruption image. The image has stuck and though in his fourth term, his government is mired in corruption charges, he is personally immune to it all. The good guy surrounded by dubious people.
Banerjee ends the book with a discussion on the legacy of Patnaik. It is true that his biggest success has been lifting Odisha from the years of despondency brought in by the Congress government. But, the once spotless Chief Minister now has increasingly turned silent on corruption charges on his government. Odisha continues to languish at the bottom of the table on many critical development indicators because other states have moved ahead relatively fast. Odisha is stable but not yet economically secure. But, perhaps everyone knows this and despite everyone knowing it, Patnaik continues to move from strength to strength. It is this strength that Banerjee has been able to discuss in an objective manner and that is why this is an excellent look into the life of one of the most complex political leaders.
In Odisha, Naveen Patnaik is often referred to as Chhamu, which translates to king. There is no other word that better defines him. Undisputed, unforgiving and all things unilateral. Banerjee presents a wonderful documentation of the journey of Patnaik from being a Delhi socialite to Odisha’s Chhamu.