The voluntary retirement Monday (23 October) of V Karthikeyan Pandian, a Tamil Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from the Odisha cadre, and his swift appointment as the chairman of a major initiative of the state government has created a huge political flutter in the state.
Pandian, a 2000 batch IAS officer, is close to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and has, over the last decade, emerged as the power behind the ‘throne’.
Known to be efficient and intelligent, Pandian not only had complete control over the state administration, but also over the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
Ministers, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), Members of Parliament (MPs), industrialists, bureaucrats, journalists, and others seek Pandian's audience and favour, and he controls access to Chief Minister Patnaik.
Pandian, who served as a private secretary to Patnaik these past 12 years, has been more powerful than not only the state chief secretary but also senior ministers.
He applied for voluntary retirement on 20 October and the state government recommended a waiver of the mandatory notice period.
The Union government accepted the request (for retirement) and the state’s recommendation (for waiver) and granted its approval within a record three days.
The development did not come as a surprise. It is common knowledge that Patnaik, who trusts him and has delegated major powers and functions to him, has been grooming Pandian for a political role.
Naveen Patnaik, who celebrated his seventy-seventh birthday last week, is a bachelor. The recurring buzz in Odisha's political circles over the past 10 years has been that Patnaik is grooming Pandian to be his successor.
Patnaik has never spoken openly about his plans, though it is widely speculated that he plans to become the chief minister for a sixth consecutive term starting next year. The BJD is expected to win the assembly elections in May 2024.
However, Patnaik, say some top BJD leaders who are close to him, may not serve a full term next time around (until 2029, by which time he will be 83 years old) primarily because of his serious ailments.
He would like to hand over the reins to his trusted Pandian a couple of years from now.
Patnaik’s succession plan would have been smooth but for the fact that Pandian is a Tamil.
Though he is well-known across Odisha, including by ordinary folk even in the rural areas, Patnaik was not entirely sure of Pandian’s acceptability.
Patnaik intelligently sent Pandian on an extensive tour of all the 147 assembly seats spread across the state’s 30 districts in June this year.
Using a state helicopter — a rare for an IAS officer — Pandian went on a whirlwind tour of Odisha to review development works with local officials and public representatives, including MLAs and MPs.
Pandian also met many people to receive petitions and hear and address their grievances.
Clad in his trademark white shirt (but forsaking his formal shoes for leather sandals), Pandian addressed meetings with a wide cross section of people arranged by the local BJD leaders.
He met farmers, labourers, artisans, tradesmen, widows, school children, and others during a tour that drew strong criticism from opposition parties, who objected to a bureaucrat taking on the role of a politician.
Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) MP Aparajita Sarangi even wrote to the Union government’s Department of Personnel and Training, seeking punitive action against Pandian for what she contended was "crossing a red line."
"Has Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik authorised a secretary-level bureaucrat to go around announcing projects in different parts of Odisha while the elected MLAs, MPs and ministers are either onlookers or absent in those meetings?" asked Sarangi.
Pandian’s statewide tour generated such a controversy that Patnaik had to read out a four-page statement in the state assembly stating that he had deputed Pandian to spruce up the local administration and oversee the decentralisation of the state machinery.
Tamil acceptance in Odisha
Patnaik was not bothered with the criticism from the opposition ranks. Because the feedback he received from various sources was that ordinary people all over the state displayed great enthusiasm in meeting Pandian.
"Everyone, down to an old woman living in a remote hamlet, knew that Pandian was Patnaik’s confidante and trusted representative. And so they received him with the same love and warmth that they display towards Naveen babu. Grassroots functionaries of the party (BJP) also accepted Pandian enthusiastically," said a senior BJD functionary who is close to Patnaik.
This view was endorsed by many other politicians, including senior BJP and Congress leaders, as well as political observers and analysts who spoke to Swarajya.
Encouraged by this feedback, Patnaik reckoned that Pandian’s Tamil roots would not prove to be a hindrance if the latter were to take the long-awaited plunge into state politics.
"Naveen babu realised that the people of Odisha would have no problems in accepting Pandian," said the BJD leader.
That is why Pandian put in his papers late last week.
The Chief Minister reportedly requested Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the two share very good ties — to fast-track the process of clearing Pandian’s voluntary retirement.
Pandian, born 29 May 1974, was made the Chairman of the ‘5T Initiative’ (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time and Transformation) and the state’s ambitious ‘Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha’ scheme.
Both those projects are Pandian’s brainchild; he designed them to help the BJD beat anti-incumbency in the next elections.
While the 5T Initiative is a major push for good governance, the Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha scheme is a major drive for decentralisation that puts huge funds in the hands of panchayats for development projects and preserving the state’s ‘Jagannath’ culture.
Plunge Into Politics
Pandian will now be the chairman of these twin mega projects with cabinet rank. That, say BJD leaders, will be the first step towards his eventual ascension to the chief minister's chair.
"These two projects are all-encompassing and cover all state departments. As the chairman, Pandian will effectively exercise control over all these departments. From a super-bureaucrat, he has now become a super-minister," said a BJP MLA.
But Pandian’s new role has caused consternation among many senior BJD politicians who are resentful of the power that Pandian has been wielding.
Many of them believe that they will be further sidelined within both the party and the government with Pandian becoming more powerful now.
These BJD leaders also feel that Patnaik’s assessment about Pandian’s acceptability among the masses is flawed.
"The BJD is a regional party built on Odiya sentiments. People will not accept a non-Odiya playing a major role in the party," a former cabinet minister who had a fallout with Patnaik a couple of years ago told Swarajya.
But Patnaik’s supporters cite the instance of Sarangi, the BJP Lok Sabha MP from Bhubaneshwar who was also an Odisha-cadre IAS officer.
Sarangi hails from Bihar and is married to fellow IAS officer Satosh Sarangi, an Odiya. Pandian is also married to a fellow IAS officer Sujata, an Odiya.
The two cases are different, contend others.
"In Indian polity and society, a daughter-in-law from another community is accepted as part of the family and the lady takes on the community identity of her husband’s family. That is why Aparajita Sarangi has been easily accepted as an Odiya bahu and won the Lok Sabha elections from Bhubaneshwar.
"But that is not the case with a son-in-law. At the end of the day, Pandian is a Tamil and will always remain so. People of Odisha will never accept him as an Odiya," said a senior BJP leader.
Pandian obtained a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the Agricultural College and Research Institute in his birthplace Madurai before completing a Master's in plant physiology from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi.
His first posting as an IAS officer was as deputy collector of Dharamgarh in Kalahandi district in 2002. He then became the district magistrate of Mayurbhanj in 2005 and of Ganjam district in 2007.
It was during his stint at Ganjam that he caught Chief Minister Patnaik’s attention for some major initiatives he had taken to address development issues and for his prompt redressal of grievances of the people.
Patnaik inducted Pandian into the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) in 2011. Pandian proved worthy of the trust Patnaik placed in him and rose swiftly to the rank of the chief minister's private secretary, a post that became more powerful than that of the state chief secretary.
Patnaik’s dependence on Pandian increased manifold after an attempted coup by senior BJD leader Pyari Mohan Mohapatra in May-June 2012.
Mohapatra, a former IAS officer, was a principal secretary to then Odisha chief minister Biju Patnaik (Naveen Patnaik’s father). Biju Patnaik inducted him into politics and Mohapatra became a powerful politician in Odisha.
Mohapatra became a mentor to Naveen Patnaik after Biju Patnaik’s death in April 1997. Mohapatra helped Naveen Patnaik form the BJD — a breakaway of the erstwhile Janata Dal — in December 1997 and became a powerful political adviser to Naveen Patnaik.
But when Naveen Patnaik was on a visit to London in May 2012, Mohapatra tried to stage a coup and split the BJD.
Mohapatra had hatched a plan with the Congress to split the BJD, which had 104 MLAs in the 147-member House. But the attempt floundered because Mohapatra could secure the support of only 33 MLAs of the BJD.
This was because Pandian, who had become close to Naveen Patnaik, had marshalled most MLAs, including ministers, to stay away from Mohapatra and back Naveen Patnaik.
Pandian thus played a critical role in foiling the coup by mobilising the entire state administration to keep the BJD MLAs (including ministers) in line and preventing them from joining the Mohapatra camp.
There was no looking back for Pandian ever since. But, as he grew in stature and power, he also attracted a share of critics and opponents, especially within the BJD.
But with Patnaik’s unstinted and unqualified backing, Pandian has emerged as the most powerful person in Odisha after the Chief Minister himself.
In fact, some say he controls the ailing Chief Minister and is the actual power behind Patnaik.
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