Interview With The Maharaja Of Mayurbhanj: "Naveen Patnaik Is A Nice Man, But It's Important He Breaks Free From The Babu Control"

Shreyas Bharadwaj

Jun 03, 2024, 12:10 PM | Updated 11:43 AM IST

Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanja Deo.
Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanja Deo.
  • Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanja Deo says how crucial it is to eliminate centralisation of power in Odisha that has led to dissatisfaction among long-time members of the BJD.
  • Maharaja Praveen Chandra Bhanja Deo is the 47th ruler of the Bhanja dynasty of Mayurbhanj (Odisha).

    He has been politically active, a two-term MLA, and was a former minister in the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government led by Naveen Patnaik. In 2019, he shifted to Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and had been with the party ever since.

    In an interview at Belgadia Palace, the home of the Bhanja royal family, wide ranging topics — from his time in BJD to the history of Mayurbhanj, and the state’s modernisation attempts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries — were discussed.

    In this first part of the interview, he spoke about politics in Odisha.

    Question: You have been with the BJD for two terms as an MLA and now you are in the BJP. What exactly is the change that you noticed in Naveen Patnaik when you were there and towards the end of your time in the BJD?

    Answer: When I joined in 2009 and became an MLA, Naveen Patnaik was very open and approachable. He often called MLAs and MPs to meet him, and he was quite jovial and intelligent. He encouraged open dialogue and sought advice on political matters from a wide range of people.

    Being a writer, he’s very intelligent. Actually as a person, he’s very very nice. If you get to know him, he’s very forthright while speaking to with you.

    He would call people to come and sit with him and give them advice on political ways and means. He would call a worker and ask him, "What are your difficulties?"

    However, since 2016, there has been a noticeable shift. He became more isolated and less accessible. This change seemed to coincide with an increased reliance on the bureaucracy, believing they could better manage the state's affairs. This shift was a concern for many of us.

    Question: What happened in 2016?

    Answer: In 2016, a new personal secretary was appointed, which significantly changed the dynamics. This individual began to exert a lot of influence, becoming very close to the Chief Minister and taking on a gatekeeper's role. This centralisation of power created challenges within the party, leading to dissatisfaction among long-time members.

    In 2012, a significant internal challenge arose within the party, orchestrated by Pyarimohan Mahapatra, another former bureaucrat who had been close to Naveen. During this period, only a few of us remained loyal while many legislators aligned themselves with Pyari Babu.

    By 2014, Naveen had reconciled with those who had distanced themselves during the 'coup', even appointing some to ministerial positions. I inquired about his decision to reintegrate them, expressing concern about whether it indicated a potential weakness in the administration's ability to maintain control without granting such positions. He responded that we would discuss it later, though the matter was never revisited.

    A certain bureaucrat's rise to prominence within the party was marked by his close relationship with the Chief Minister. He began taking on responsibilities that were unusual for a bureaucrat, including overseeing personal matters such as meals and medications, effectively becoming both a caretaker and gatekeeper.

    During this period, many of us felt it was best to step back. By 2019, I decided to depart. V K Pandian's influence resulted in significant shifts within the party, with many individuals gaining more power due to his support. This created challenges, particularly for those of us who valued our independence. Notable figures like Jay Panda and others also chose to leave. Over time, the composition of the BJD changed significantly, with many original members being replaced by individuals from the Congress and other parties. Numerous transformations have occurred since then.

    Question: One thing is the growth of Bobby (Bobby as in Pranab Prakash Das is the number three in BJD and the Sambalpur Lok Sabha candidate of the party against Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan) in the last five years. What are your thoughts on this?

    Answer: It's true that certain individuals have gained considerable influence. This can be attributed to strategic appointments and relationships built over the years. These dynamics have contributed to the changes in how the party operates today.

    Bobby and Pandian go back a long time because Pandian actually picked up Bobby and that’s how their relationship started.

    Question: How exactly was he chosen?

    Answer: Politically.

    Question: Pandian never served in Jajpur, though...

    Answer: No, he never served in Jajpur. He was collector in Mayurbhanj and then Berhampur. He was, I think, a sub-collector in Kalahandi. Either Junagadh or Dharamgarh, I’m not sure.

    Question: So it’s mostly been Pandian?

    Answer: Yes, currently his influence is quite pronounced. The centralisation of power around him has seen a significant change in the party's dynamics.

    Question: I remember in 2019 also when I came to Odisha, there was some talk of Pandian but it had not seeped down to the voters in 2019. Now it seems every voter is talking about him.

    Answer: Indeed, most of the MLAs are under his influence, and no one has any independent power. This has led to a perception among the voters that the party is being run in a very centralised manner, which has its challenges.

    Question: How does he run his show — through bureaucracy?

    Answer: The name of Biju Babu still holds significant weight. Naveen Patnaik, being Biju Patnaik's son, has a legacy to uphold. However, with the current dynamics, access to Naveen has become highly restricted, creating a more centralised and controlled environment.

    Question: The Prime Minister a few days back spoke about instituting a commission to investigate the reasons behind Naveen Patnaik’s ill health.

    Answer: Naveen Patnaik is a very kind and intelligent individual. It's important to ensure that he has the support he needs, both personally and professionally. Maintaining his well-being should be a priority for everyone involved. However the well-being and the vision for the state has to be of paramount importance.

    As I have said, Naveen Patnaik is a very nice person. He’s very loving, and being a bachelor, he naturally wants people to be around him, to talk to him. But it’s also that no one wants to see Pandian’s face morning, noon and night. So, I think that also must be very disheartening for Naveen, to see one person’s face all through the year.

    Question: Pandian seems to have made himself completely indispensable.

    Answer: Pandian has certainly become a central figure within the administration. I hope that both he and the Chief Minister receive the necessary support to navigate their demanding roles effectively.

    Question: Didn’t anyone in Naveen ji’s family try to interfere?

    Answer: There was a time when his family tried to offer support and guidance. His sister, in particular, was very involved. Unfortunately, after her passing, that close familial support has diminished. It's a challenging situation, but the focus should always be on supporting Naveen Patnaik in the best way possible to be able to create a holistic vision for the state with space for diverse insights, not only one.

    Question: There was talk of his brother's son coming in?

    Answer: There was a talk, but no one came. I don’t believe the two brothers are very close. In any case, the focus should be on ensuring that the leadership remains strong and connected to the values that have guided the party for so long — inclusive development for all.

    Question: Thank you for sharing your insights.

    Answer: You are welcome. It's important to have these discussions and work towards the welfare of our state.

    Disclaimer: The interviewer's questions and views are his own and does not represent any organisation he might be a part of.

    Shreyas Bharadwaj is a Hindutvawadi from Mysuru who is interested in writing about cities and public policy.

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