When Patnaik was elected to the 12th Lok Sabha from the Aska parliamentary constituency in 1998 and subsequently when he became CM of Orissa in 2000 with the help of the BJP, this columnist, who covered his campaign and first days in office, was forced to ask the question: Pappu’s cool, but can he rule? In those days Patnaik spoke no Oriya, he was an Anglicised urban sophisticate who smoked cigarettes and drank scotch like any denizen of metropolitan India. He was known by his trendy night-clubbing lifestyle in New York, had written books on herbs and gardens and was the creatively inclined founder member of The Indian National Trust For Art and Cultural Heritage. Indeed he was someone seemingly much more at home in genteel air-conditioned dinner parties than trying to lead India’s second poorest state, with its vast swathes of tribal communities, its grinding underdevelopment, its belching, leg-shaking, tea-slopping MLAs and representatives of the dirt poor and the illiterate, who crowded his reception rooms in Naveen Niwas in their crumpled kurtas and blood red tilaks. He faced a formidable opponent in the Congress’ redoubtable J.B. Patnaik. Nor were his father’s loyalists convinced that the public school-educated son could ever inherit the mantle of Biju Patnaik, ‘Lion of the east’. A veteran Oriya journalist told me at that time, “Only God can save Naveen Patnaik.”
Yet today, with or without God, Patnaik has shattered many myths about the English-speaking babalog in India. First of all he has proved that dynasty need not necessarily be a bad thing. He may have started out as Biju Patnaik’s son, may have had a head-start in politics because of his family connections, yet today he seems to have surpassed his father in charisma and durability. He’s turned into a ruthless, canny politician who perhaps his fashionable friends would find hard to recognise.
He’s shown that family name need not stop you from artfully marginalising an old guard that may have been loyal to the father but are of little use to the son.
Second, he’s proved his own dictum right. He once said in an interview, “Ultimately, it’s whether you’re working for them or not, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.” He’s boldly arrested the VHP activists accused of the anti-Christian brutality in the Kandhamal riots last year. After the Orissa supercyclone, he started the Indira Awash Yojana which gave loans to BPL families and Hudco house-building loans to non-BPL households. Like the worker-ant CMs Shiela Dikshit or Raman Singh, Patnaik emphasises development above all. Police brutality on Kalinganagar adivasi protests and open door investment-friendly policies like inviting in Tata Steel and Posco may have been criticised, but Patnaik’s still notched up a reputation as a hard-working CM.
Third and most importantly, he’s proved that those who are criticised for being privileged are also relatively free of the pressures of having to please hanger-on families and kinship groups. Patnaik’s own clean image and his high-profile campaigns against corruption are his greatest assets. Prior to the 2004 elections, he had a senior IAS officer jailed. The local media regularly receives reports about his actions against corrupt officials. They all grudgingly agree on one cultivated perception, “Naveen Patnaik doesn’t take money.”
Which is why the BJP must now repent having taken Pappu for granted. As a national party, there is a tendency to see a regional party as the ‘junior’ partner. But the rise of Patnaik proves the emergence of regional satraps as the dominant figures of this election season. Indeed, as the Left and Janata Dal (S) make energetic efforts to regroup into a “non-Congress secular alternative” to both the BJP and the Congress, the national parties seem to be in a state of increasing disarray. The NDA, once a 23-party alliance, is now a rump of a handful of discontents.
The Congress’ own alliances with the regional satraps also show that the freedom party now plays second fiddle to the state-level parties, however bravely its spokespersons may declare that this is a “unipolar” election. Today the Congress does not know whether it can rely on the Samajwadi Party or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) as an ally, its own arrogance in not offering national alliances has pushed it into a situation where it must now bargain for almost every seat it wants to contest. The manner in which the NCP has been playing open footsie with the Shiv Sena to bargain for seats with the Congress, shows the latter’s helplessness in the face of robust regional bosses.
These regional bosses fit no stereotype. From caste army leaders to farmer capitalists, they now have a new posterboy in the regional pantheon. A representative of the English-speaking class, of the elitist children of privilege who were long written off in India’s democratic process, as being irrelevant and unworthy of a popular mandate, who could not hope to compete with the caste movements of today has now emerged as a strong and tough regional satrap. Naveen Patnaik is a good example for all elite folk seeking a return to their ‘roots’. It doesn’t matter if initially people make fun of you for saying “koi hai” and drinking your chota pegs, but ‘disconnected’ Macaulay’s children too can become natural born children of Bharat, if only they are willing to work at it.
(Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor CNN-IBN)