The formal entry of former IAS officer V Karthikeyan Pandian into Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Monday (November 27) takes him a step closer to eventually stepping into Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s shoes.
Though widely expected, Pandian’s joining the BJD has caused quite a stir in the BJD and political circles in the state.
The ball was set rolling when Pandian, a 2000 batch IAS officer who hails from Tamil Nadu, took voluntary retirement on October 23 this year. He was immediately appointed chairman of Naveen Patnaik’s flagship ‘5T’ (a transformational initiative) and the Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha schemes with cabinet rank.
The fact that the Union Government approved Pandian’s request for voluntary retirement in just three days, that too over a weekend, was proof that chief minister Patnaik was scripting Pandian’s entry into politics.
It was learnt that Patnaik had put in a personal request with the PMO to process Pandian’s request (for voluntary retirement) and fast-track its approval.
Exactly five weeks after he left babudom, Pandian formally joined the BJD. This five-week period was deftly used by Naveen Patnaik to gauge reactions from his senior party colleagues and manage dissent against Pandian’s formal entry into the ruling party.
Over the past few years, speculation was rife that Patnaik was grooming Pandian, his secretary, to be his successor. His (Pandian’s) resignation from the IAS and appointment as chairman of 5T and Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha--projects that are close to Naveen Patnaik’s heart--was a ‘soft-launch’ into politics masterminded by the Chief Minister.
“Naveen babu held intense closed-door discussions with senior (BJD) functionaries, cabinet ministers and party MPs over the past few weeks. He indicated to them that he wants Pandian to succeed him and expects everyone to extend full cooperation to Pandian,” a BJD Lok Sabha MP told Swarajya.
The chief minister told his senior colleagues that he is getting old and is not in very good health. “He (Naveen Patnaik) indicated that after taking the party to victory in next year’s Assembly elections and serving the first two years or so of his sixth term as the Chief Minister (he became the CM in March 2000), he would like to retire and have Pandian take over from him,” said the former cabinet minister who, though not part of the meetings held at ‘Naveen Niwas’ (the CM’s residence), retains close links with the party’s senior leadership.
Naveen Patnaik, said another senior BJD functionary who is close to the chief minister, made an emotional appeal to his party colleagues. Patnaik is learnt to have said that “Pandian is like a son” to him.
“Just as you all would have loved, showered blessings on and supported my son, please do the same to Pandian as well. He will make the party strong and will be true to our ideals and core values,” Patnaik is learnt to have told his cabinet colleagues.
Why Pandian’s outlier status became his major plus point
Conventional wisdom had it that Pandian, a Tamilian, would not be accepted by leaders and workers of the BJD.
But this is exactly what has worked to Pandian’s advantage. The BJD is centred around Naveen Patnaik and has many senior leaders who aspire to succeed Naveen Patnaik and become the Chief Minister.
In fact, there is fierce competition among at least five top BJD leaders to succeed Naveen Patnaik, who celebrated his 77th birthday on 16 October.
Patnaik knows that he cannot favour one over the others since that can easily trigger severe factionalism and even lead to splits in the party.
“None of those who are vying for the top post (of the CM) are ready to accept a rival as his boss. So if Naveen babu even insofar as indicates that one of them will be his successor, the others will not accept that and will revolt. Naveen babu does not want such factionalism that can pose a threat to the party that had been founded by his father, the venerable Biju Patnaik,” explained the BJD Lok Sabha MP who did not want to be named.
That is why Naveen Patnaik decided on Pandian. Pandian is loyal to Naveen Patnaik and his elevation will not trigger any factionalism.
“Many BJD leaders are against Pandian, but their opposition to their rivals within the party is much more than their opposition to Pandian. All of them will rather have Pandian as the CM than anyone else from within the party ascending to the top executive post,” said the former cabinet minister.
Also, Pandian’s administrative and even political skills are proven. As secretary to the chief minister for the past 12 years, Pandian used to virtually run the state. He was even more powerful than the state chief secretary and oversaw the implementation of major state schemes and projects.
Apart from being secretary to the chief minister, Pandian was also the secretary of 5T (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time leading to Transformation) that has ensured timely and successful completion of many state government projects.
Though a bureaucrat, Pandian also played the role of Naveen Patnaik’s (unofficial) political secretary. Pandian used to oversee a lot of party work on the instructions of the chief minister.
“Naveen babu has not been in good health for the last few years and a lot of organisational work used to be done by Pandian. From meeting grassroots-level party workers and district functionaries to senior cabinet ministers for party work, collecting feedback from them and passing on the party president’s (Naveen Patnaik’s) instructions to them, Pandian used to do it all. He was Naveen babu’s voice in the government and the party,” a minister of state who hails from an important coastal district of Odisha told Swarajya.
Pandian proved his loyalty to Naveen Patnaik and displayed his considerable political skills during the revolt (against Patnaik) by senior BJD leader Pyari Mohan Mohapatra in May-June 2012. Mohapatra attempted a coup to remove Patnaik as the chief minister while the latter was away on a visit to London.
Pandian, who had been inducted into the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) just a year earlier after having served as the district magistrate of Mayurbhanj and Ganjam, quickly used the state machinery to rally BJD MLAs and MPs behind Patnaik and ultimately foil Mohapatra’s attempted coup.
What the future holds for Pandian
This is not to say, however, that it will be smooth sailing for Pandian within the BJD.
He will be facing stiff opposition from many senior party leaders, including cabinet ministers and top functionaries.
Many within and outside the party will harp on his Tamil identity; Pandian was born in Madurai on May 29, 1974, and had no connections with Odisha till he came to the state in 2002 to serve as the deputy collector of Dharamgarh in Kalahandi district.
But he is married to an Odiya who is an IAS officer. But that does not make him an Odiya; he is, at best, a ghar jamai (resident son-in-law) in the state.
However, Pandian is a well-known figure not only in political and administrative circles in the state, but also among the people.
Everyone in Odisha--from a resident of state capital Bhubaneshwar to a resident of a tiny hamlet in remote Kalahandi or Kandhamal--knows about Pandian and is aware that he is a close confidant of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
Patnaik is a well-loved figure and is revered by many across the state. Once Naveen Patnaik formally anoints Pandian as his successor, people of Odisha may not find it difficult to accept Pandian.
But then, there’s many a slip between the cup and the lip. Naveen Patnaik’s carefully laid-out plans can get derailed if any one or a group of senior leaders of the party revolt and break away from the party.
That will plunge the BJD into a crisis that the old and ailing Naveen Patnaik may find difficult to handle.
However, for now, it's smooth sailing for Pandian. This Tamilian, who holds a Bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the Agricultural College and Research Institute at his birthplace Madurai and a Master's in plant physiology from the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, is well on course to become Naveen Patnaik’s successor.
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