Among the successful leaders across the country, at least, in the last couple of decades, he is different. Unlike most others, he is not eloquent, doesn’t speak much even during elections campaigns. Yet, Odisha Chief Minister and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo, Naveen Patnaik enjoys immense popularity in the coastal state.
Known for his simple lifestyle, Naveen is an intensely private person, a man of few words. during the just concluded polls, despite the heat and humidity, Naveen campaigned exhaustively in a specially designed bus. In rallies and meetings, he would ask in his typical, Odia in European accent, Aapan Maane Khushi To? (Are you all happy)? That’s enough to drive the huge crowds go wild, berserk.
Such thunderous support silences the critics of the Doon school alumni and former Odisha chief minister, Biju Patnaik’s younger son, Naveen. People of Odisha seem to like everything about Naveen. Be it his disarming smile, dignified silence or ruthless political moves.
Often Naveen has been criticized by his political opponents for his lack of knowledge in Odia, over reliance on a coterie of bureaucrats, corruption at different levels, failure to properly raise serious issues like that of the Mahanadi etc. However, he never responds to his critics or their allegations. Instead, the voters seem do the talking on behalf of him, as the successive election results suggest.
“Naveen Patnaik is undoubtedly the most popular leader in the state. After elections are over, our party leadership is engaged in fulfilling the poll manifesto. We have done it after every election. Others make promises and forget. But we are an exception to this, we deliver,” claims, senior BJD leader, Amar Prasad Satpathy.
Naveen arrived in Odisha politics, when the situation begged for a change of guard. Following his father’s death, a void had been created in the state politics. The then ruling Congress government had become extremely unpopular for rampant corruption, poor law and order condition, lack of development and maladministration. Most importantly, the senior leaders of the party remained busy in the feud and factionalism, within the party.
In late October 1999, the worst natural calamity of that century, struck the state, badly. On 29-30 October, the deadly combination of terrible rain and dangerous wind, at times crossing 260km an hour, left 10,000 people dead, many more injured. Lakhs across the coastal districts were rendered homeless. The cyclone also dashed millions of hopes.
As former state director of international NGO CARE, Basant Mohanty recalls, “The Super cyclone caused unimaginable and unthinkable destructions of both life and property. It pushed Odisha thirty years behind.”
At a time relief and rehabilitation was the need of the hour, the Congress leadership, was busy in their bizarre game of one up-manship to grab the chief minister’s chair. In the words of a senior journalist, ‘It was apathy to people’s miseries of the highest order.”
The cyclone hit the state before the incumbent chief minister, Giridhar Gamang new to the position, could have a solid grip on the administration. As a result the inevitable happened: the administrative machinery failed miserably to meet the challenge, and people were made to suffer.
Ironically, all this happened just three months before the state was to go to the polls. In the 2000 election, as expected, Congress crashed from 80 (in 1995) to 26 seats in the assembly. Naveen’s BJD along with his, then National Democratic Alliance (NDA) partner, the BJP, emerged victorious. Naveen’s hasn’t looked back, since then.
The BJD and BJP again tasted victory in 2004. However, in 2009, Naveen decided to part ways with the saffron party and went alone. Contrary to the experts believe that the decision could backfire at Naveen, his BJD scored a thumping majority.
In October 2013, five months before the 2014 elections, Odisha experienced another severe tropical cyclonic storm, Phailin. However, Naveen, aware of the possible political impact aftermath the cyclone, not only personally oversaw preparations, he passed orders to all the top officers to maintain zero casualty. Massive evacuation operations were carried out and close to a million people were transferred from vulnerable pockets to safe shelters with provision for cooked food. Over a million food packets had been ready.
The effort brought laurels for the chief minister, from around the globe. Naveen, who is widely believed as the biggest beneficiary of the 1999 cyclone, displayed and the people felt, a strong political will, something the Congress had ignored. Needless to say, the BJD won 117 assembly and 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats. “In managing pre and post disasters, our leader is a role model, globally,” asserts, Amar Prasad Satpathy.
In the first two terms, till 2009, Naveen was particularly severe on corruption and dismissed a number of very senior leaders just on the basis of allegations against them. He didn’t give them a chance to put forth their side of the story, didn’t even wait for the truth to unravel.
However, the period since then marked a different Naveen. Over the years, numerous corruption allegations or scams (mining, chit fund etc) have surfaced against many in his party. A few BJD leaders have been arrested for their alleged involvement in the chit fund scam. Local level corruption is everywhere and law and order condition has deteriorated. Agrarian crisis is worse in the state, as in other states. There are many more issues. “We failed to mobilise the people on these issues,” concedes, a senior Congress leader, who contested for a Lok Sabha seat, but lost.
“Right from the beginning, Naveen has tried to maintain a clean personal image,” says, a Bhubaneswar based senior journalist. According to him, in the initial years of his rule, every time there was an allegation against a leader or bureaucrat, he would act severely. It’s only to drive home the point that he’s clean. According to a senior BJP leader, these are all gimmicks. “Naveen is a master of gimmicks. Surprisingly, the people fail to understand that”, says the saffron party leader.
Incidentally, in the 2019 elections, Naveen gave tickets to some candidates, who are alleged to have been involved in the ponzy scam. In a couple of seats, he chose the sons of the leaders who had served jail terms in the same scam.
Yet, Naveen’s popularity hasn’t waned. The issues too have failed to have an impact on the poll fortunes of the BJD. The Modi wave that swept the country in 2014, didn’t have any effect in Odisha. In 2019, the Modi wave helped the BJP win 8 Lok Sabha seats, seven more than it had bagged in 2014. However, the BJD scored a whopping 112 seats in the 147 member assembly. The BJP was a distant second with 23 seats while the Congress couldn’t manage to reach double figure, as it had to be content with 9 seats, its lowest, in the state, it ruled for the longest period.
Naveen’s personal popularity apart, there are several other key factors which have helped the BJD register convincing victories in the last five polls. They are: series of populist schemes-from birth to cremation, lack of a credible face in the opposition ranks to match Naveen’s stature, strong grassroots presence of the BJD. And, of course, the women’s support.
In its last four terms in power, the BJD has successfully built, as a senior leader says, ‘a well oiled organization at the grassroots level’ across the state, in particular the all important coastal region, home to 70 assembly and 10 Lok Sabha seats. “BJD has a solid political infrastructure, what others lack,” says political analyst, Rabi Das. “Without political infrastructure you can’t win an election,” he adds.
Naveen knows the importance of women in political success. His government’s women centric initiatives including push to the self help groups have ensured him keep his primary support base, intact. The women have solidly stood behind him in the elections, too. “We can’t think of any leader, other than Naveen,” says, Satyabhama Behera, a resident of Salia Sahi, Bhubaneswar’s largest slum.
On the eve of the 2019 polls, Naveen played the (33 percent reservation for women in the Lok Sabha), card. Six of the seven women candidates put up by the BJD, won. Among the winners are Pramila Bisoi and Chandrani Murmu from Aska and Kendujhar Lok Sabha seats, respectively, both unknown quantities till they were given tickets.
While Bisoi, 70 is a representative for Mission Shakti, the women’s SHG movement of Odisha, Murmu, an engineering graduate was reportedly preparing for a job in the banking sector. Murmu, 25, is India’s youngest ever Lok Sabha member.
Needless to say, while Naveen has begun his fifth innings as Chief Minister, the BJP and the Congress are still searching for reasons, as to what went wrong.