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The making of a sure-footed politician

When he dived into politics a decade ago, Naveen Patnaik was written off as a greenhorn. Today, the Orissa chief minister has emerged as a canny politician on top of his detractors, writes Soumyajit Pattnaik.

india Updated: Mar 13, 2009 23:08 IST
Soumyajit Pattnaik

Naveen Patnaik’s entire story can be encapsulated in three framed photographs kept at Naveen Niwas, a house built by his father, Biju, in the 1950s. One is a sepia-tinted print from the 1940s of his mother, Gyan, sipping tea with one of the
wives of Sukarno, the first Indonesian President — it’s a glimpse of the formidable Biju legacy that Naveen has inherited.

Another is a black-and-white shot of Naveen with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the former first lady of the US — it’s reminiscent of the jet-set life the Orissa chief minister led before entering politics. And the third is a picture of the chief minister being administered oath of office — it marks the biggest break in his life after he plunged into politics in 1997 at the age of 50.

The break was indeed dramatic. From someone who could barely converse at length in his mother tongue, Oriya, a decade ago, Naveen has emerged as the pivot of the state’s politics. His party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), sent 11 MPs to the 14th Lok Sabha and 61 MLAs to the current state Assembly of 147.

It reflects, partly, the relentless focus the ‘novice’ has brought to his political work. Consider this: the former high-flying socialite’s passport has never been stamped since he became chief minister in 2000. He had shifted from Lutyens’ Delhi, where he had been based most of his life, to Bhubaneswar, barely three years before.

In March 2000, when Bill Clinton was visiting, Naveen was invited to a state lunch with the US President at Hyderabad House in New Delhi. But the date happened to coincide with the opening of the first state Assembly session after his swearing in — and Naveen preferred to forgo the lunch.

The soft-spoken leader’s charm has worked well in attracting investments to Orissa. In the nine years it has been in power, Naveen’s government has brought in ‘committed investments’ worth Rs 4,00,000 crore to the mineral-rich state. But it wasn’t strictly business all the time. When steel baron Lakshmi Mittal came calling with his son Aditya in July 2007, Naveen asked them about their next port of call. The Mittals informed that they would be flying straight to a resort on the
Mediterranean coast of Spain. Naveen and Mittal Jr. ended up discussing the resort and a famous club there for a few minutes. Mittal Sr. is said to have ended the discussion with: “All good things live forever.”

Kalikesh Singhdeo, a young BJD MLA who studied, like Naveen, at the Doon Scool, says, “Naveen Patnaik has a very fine aesthetic sense and always brings the best out of any situation he comes across.”

Indeed, he uses all his experience to make things work his way. For example, he used his association with Intach, the heritage preservation trust of which he was a founder member, to restore Bindusagar, a fabled lake in Old Bhubaneswar whose water is believed to have medicinal quality.

Around it, the Ekamra Kanan too has been revitalised with medicinal plants — all thanks to Naveen, whose 1993 book, The Garden of Life, dwells at length on the medicinal uses of Indian herbs. (His sister Gita Mehta, author Karma Cola and A River Sutra, is married to Sonny Mehta, editor-in-chief of the New York-based publishers Alfred A. Knopf.)

Such projects follow a basic shift in the state’s focus. S.N. Patro, tourism minister during 2003-04 and now the state
energy minister, says, “He has changed the emphasis of the tourism department from building cement and concrete structures to working more on ethnic designs and tribal arts.”

Even more profound has been Naveen’s effect on the state politics. His recent decision to move away from the BJP-led central coalition wasn’t the first risk he took. When he expelled Bijoy Mohapatra, a powerful BJD leader, from the party before the 2000 Assembly polls, many thought the party would split. Yet, Naveen and his then-new party prevailed.
During his early years in Bhubaneswar, there were many jokes on how Pappu — Naveen’s nickname — would soon be outfoxed by seasoned, older politicians, and how he would be forced to flee Orissa without anyone else’s knowledge. Well, Pappu has proved that not only can he dance, but he can make others dance to his tune, too.