VK Pandian, Naveen Patnaik’s trusted aide, is BJD’s star campaigner in Odisha - Hindustan Times
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VK Pandian, Naveen Patnaik’s trusted aide, is BJD’s star campaigner in Odisha

ByDebabrata Mohanty
May 01, 2024 06:15 PM IST

As VK Pandian becomes the poster boy of the BJD in the 2024 election campaign without being a candidate, the opposition has made his Tamil origin as a major election issue harping on Odia pride

VK Pandian, the Tamil Nadu-born trusted lieutenant of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is not contesting the ensuing Lok Sabha or Assembly election beginning in the state from May 13, but he has become the focal point of the poll campaign, diminishing other issues as well as the candidates.

VK Pandian shakes hands with students during a programme in Bhubaneshwar. (ANI File Photo)
VK Pandian shakes hands with students during a programme in Bhubaneshwar. (ANI File Photo)

Listed as a star campaigner for the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), it is now no secret that Pandian, the bureaucrat--turned-politician, would do most of the heavy lifting for the party in the polls amid signs of Naveen Patnaik finding it difficult to canvass for candidates due to his advancing age.

From heli-hopping to Jeypore in Koraput district to Nuapada, Malkangiri and Nabarangpur districts in a span of a week and addressing public meetings promising dollops of hope to the people, Pandian is setting a frenetic pace in the campaign even as an unprecedented heatwave sweeps a large swathe of the state.

For the next 30 days, he has dozens of public meetings lined up across the state.

Though originally allotted Punjab cadre in 2000, Pandian, born in a modest family of Tamil Nadu’s Madurai, moved to Odisha in 2002 following his marriage to his batchmate Sujata Rout. He started getting noticed by Patnaik, after working in a few districts like Mayurbhanj and Ganjam as district collector and he joined the chief minister’s office (CMO) in 2011, where he impressed his boss.

Before he took the plunge to politics, Pandian had hit the roads last year, touring all the 30 districts of the state, mingling with the crowds, shak­ing hands with people, particularly women who form a large chunk of Patnaik’s support base, listening to grievances and collecting petitions. Dressed in a white shirt and grey chinos, he is seen as the emissary of the second longest-serving chief minister in the country.

Four days ago, while addressing a meeting of tribals in Umerkote block of Nabarangpur district, he took to stage delivering a speech in Odia mocking the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders, who, he said, were angry over tribals voting for the BJD.

“They have lost their sleep over your love for Naveen Patnaik. The CM’s heart is huge and the tribals have a special place in that heart,” he said in heavily-accented Odia while the party’s MP candidate Pradip Majhi and woman candidate for Umerkote assembly seat, Nabina Nayak stood behind few feet away.

Two days later, he flew to Malkangiri where he gave a similar speech on how his government was working hard for tribals and had withdrawn over 5,000 petty cases against them.

“In 2019 polls, he took the lead in distributing the tickets and deciding the party’s strategy. In 2024 polls, he is unencumbered by bureaucratic barriers and would be the No 1 campaigner of the party,” said a senior minister of the party, unwilling to be quoted.

These days the signs of his pre-eminence in the regional party are too evident. Though he does not hold any office in the party, he remains the most powerful person in the party. Early this month, his name went missing from the CMO website as 5T secretary after the BJP lodged a complaint with the Election Commission over Pandian’s continuity in the government post as illegal since it violated the model code of conduct. But in all official correspondences, he continues to be 5T secretary and has now been accorded Z category security along with BJP leaders Dharmendra Pradhan and Baijayant Panda. His photos that had gone missing from the posters of BJD candidates have again reappeared along with Naveen Patnaik and party’s organisational secretary Pranab Prakash Das, candidate from Sambalpur Lok Sabha constituency.

As Pandian becomes the poster boy of the BJD in the 2024 campaign without being a candidate, the main opposition BJP has made his origin as a major election issue harping on Odia asmita (Odia pride). Two days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an interview with a TV channel said Odia Asmita is in danger. “Odia language is in danger. I don’t think Odia people will tolerate it for long,” said Modi in an apparent dig at Pandian’s rise in the BJD amid speculations that he would become Patnaik’s eventual successor.

BJP president JP Nadda while addressing a public meeting in Berhampur town on Sunday said there was effort to import an ‘outsider’ and make him the successor in the State. “Does not Odisha have any of its own leaders to lead the state,” he asked.

The alliance discussion between the BJP and the BJD in March this year reportedly broke down over the latter’s insistence for an insurance for Pandian for at least 2-3 years in the post-Naveen phase.

Last week, the state unit of the BJP brought out a 60-page booklet listing the failures of the Naveen Patnaik government over last 24 years, but a quarter of the booklet was devoted to Pandian alone. The booklet attacked him for his “non-Odia roots” and addressed him as “lootera” and Kalapahad, an Army general under Bengal sultanate in 16th century who is alleged to have attacked many temples including the Jagannath temple in Puri.

Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan was more acerbic. “It’s better if Pandian goes to his own state to do politics. What business he has to shout at Odia people,” said Pradhan.

The BJD responded to the allegations of the BJP, saying Odia culture does not need a political party like the BJP to

protect it. “The Odia culture is far greater and bigger than any political party in the world that any party can consider itself so big to think of protecting Odia culture. For thousands of years, proud Odias have always protected the Odia culture very fiercely,” the BJD press statement said.

However, several BJD leaders HT spoke to over the last few days admitted that propping up Pandian as star campaigner and projecting him as the successor of the chief minister may not help the party electorally. “We have always rooted for Naveen Patnaik as he is Biju babu’s son and Odia. Though he may not be able to speak Odia well, he was born in Odisha. But that does not mean we would accept a non-Odia as our leader,” a BJD sarpanch in tribal-dominated Keonjhar district said, unwilling to be named.

In Mayurbhanj district too, a senior BJD leader expressed similar sentiments, saying Pandian’s campaigning may harm the party more. “He should have continued to be the private secretary of the chief minister and not joined the BJD. His joining the BJD opens up Naveen babu to attacks of propping up a non-Odia as successor. The BJP would continue to attack us, and it may find resonance on the ground,” the senior leader said, on condition of anonymity.

Another BJD leader in Puri said given the way Pandian has been forced upon the party through backdoor, it would not augur well for the party. “In all the meetings that he attends, the ministers are compelled to play second fiddle. Earlier also, he used to sit on the dais while cabinet ministers sat in the audience. Though the senior leaders are expressing their resentment over the humiliation, they may revolt once the BJD fails to get the majority mark or wafer-thin majority in the assembly poll,” said the BJD leader, who has been denied ticket, but has not switched his loyalties to other parties so far.

In many of the villages across the state, people on the streets appeared to have strong views on his rise in the BJD. “Don’t we have strong Odia leaders who can be Naveen Patnaik’s successor? Would any other state in the country accept a non-native person as their leader,” asked Reena Marndi, a first-time voter in Thakurmunda area of Mayurbhanj.

Pandian did not respond to the apprehensions and allegations of BJD leaders as well as others about his rise harming the party’s political prospects. Queries sent to BJD’s senior leader and spokesman Manas Mangaraj did not elicit any response.

Amid the intense discussion over Pandian’s future in the state politics, a BJD office-bearer said the former bureaucrat’s ambition may be his undoing. “There is no doubt that Naveen Patnaik will win a sixth consecutive mandate and become the chief minister. We foresee Pandian becoming the inheritor of Naveen’s legacy between 2024 and 2029. But no one can say for sure if Pandian can become CM after Naveen,” said the office-bearer.

Noted political observor Satya Prakash Dash of Sambalpur University, said using language in an election and targetting non-Odia root of someone is a new phenomenon in Odisha politics. “Starting from PM Modi to union home minister Amit Sha, everyone is targetting Pandian over his non-Odia roots and attempts to usurp power. But as long as BJP does not target Naveen Patnaik, it may not give much electoral dividend. For all you know Naveen Patnaik may get off Pandian after polls,” said Dash

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