Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, who passed away after prolonged illness on Sunday, used to be Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s confidant till he termed him “backstabber” and “beimaan” (traitor) in May 2012.
Mohapatra, a career bureaucrat, came into Naveen’s life in 1997 soon after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader landed in Odisha after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik. Having spent almost his entire life outside the state, Naveen did not know anyone when he came to Odisha.
During Biju Patnaik’s tenure as chief minister between 1990 and 1995, Mohapatra worked as his principal secretary and was the eyes and ears of the legendary politician. With virtually no friends in Odisha, Naveen turned to his mother Gyan Patnaik, who advised him to seek the help of “Pyari babu” to navigate the choppy waters of politics.
Mohapatra paved the way for Naveen’s smooth ascension to the throne in 2000 when he engineered the expulsion and subsequent political checkmating of Bijoy Mohapatra, the chairman of BJD’s political affairs committee shortly before the assembly elections. The canny Mohapatra saw Bijoy Mohapatra as the main adversary of Naveen in the fledgling BJD and ensured that he did not get to contest the polls. “It is PM who has stabbed me,” said Bijoy at a public meeting in his constituency in Kendrapara district referring to Mohapatra.
From early 2000, Mohapatra scripted almost all the moves of Naveen, including advising him on day-to-day running of the state. Naveen, a political greenhorn, depended on “uncle” Mohapatra and suggested his bureaucrats and ministers to often consult the retired bureaucrat on policy matters and politics.
Mohapatra soon acquired a larger-than-life image in the party with bureaucrats queuing up before his house for orders on some policy issues.
Over time, the bespectacled Mohapatra, calculated each and every moves of moves of Naveen like a consummate chess player. More than Naveen Niwas, the residence of the chief minister, Mohapatra’s residence at 111 Sahid Nagar in Bhubaneswar was where the levers of power were being turned. He was dubbed as ‘super chief minister’ and ‘Chanakya’ of Odisha politics. “What Amit Shah is to (Narendra) Modi, Pyari babu was to Naveen. He changed the DNA of BJD and made it a politically well-oiled winning machine,” said political analyst Rabi Das.
A grateful Naveen sent Mohapatra to Rajya Sabha in 2004. The Bharatiya Janata Party was an ally of BJD, but Mohapatra convinced Naveen to dump it just ahead of the 2009 assembly polls citing that the saffron partner had become a political liability in the wake of Kandhamal riots in 2008.
While everyone said the move was suicidal, Mohapatra helped the BJD win 109 of the 147 seats in the assembly.
Using a cheap rice scheme for the poor and through some deft selection of candidates, he managed to break the Congress and BJP bastion in the tribal districts of undivided Koraput, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh. He even propped up candidates in places where BJD candidates were on a weak wicket to ensure they eat into the rival’s votes.
But post-2009 polls, the bond between the two men showed signs of cracks as Mohapatra tried to assert himself as the most important leader of the party but Naveen asked his bureaucrats not to report to his political advisor. The frigidity in the realtionship was evident in 2012 panchayat polls when Naveen campaigned alone in the panchayat elections and then unilaterally announced the names of three Rajya Sabha candidates without even a phonecall to Mohapatra. To rub more salt into Mohapatra’s wounds, Naveen unilaterally announced BJD’s support for former Lok Sabha Speaker PA Sangma as presidential candidate.
Mohapatra fell from grace on May 29, 2012 when he allegedly tried to engineer a coup in the party while Naveen was away in London on his first overseas trip after becoming CM. Naveen was furious when he learnt of the coup attempt and tried to mock Mohapatra for acting like his “self-appointed advisor”.
The rebellion fell through as just 33 of the 104 MLAs of the party showed allegiance to the Chanakya. Soon after Naveen returned from London, the smoulders of rebellion had died as Mohapatra realised his disciple had outwitted him in politics. “He is a beimaan and backstabber,” said Naveen, soon after suspending Mohapatra and a few others from the party.
Mohapatra swore revenge promising that he would reveal explosive details about Naveen when the time comes. But his threat had no effect and his party, Odisha Jana Morcha, bit the dust in 2014 Lok Sabha and Assembly polls. He receded to further political oblivion last year when his Rajya Sabha tenure ended.
In between a few political leaders, including union minister Dharmendra Pradhan, visited him after he was diagnosed with lung cancer.