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Lok Sabha elections 2019: Naveen Patnaik looks to stay on right side of history, victory

Patnaik was an MP in the ruling United Front in 1997. He became a union minister in 1998. Since 2000, he has headed Odisha.

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 28, 2019 07:57 IST
Saubhadra Chatterji
Saubhadra Chatterji
Hindustan Times, Bhubaneswar/New Delhi
Naveen Patnaik,Odisha,BJD
Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (Arabinda Mahapatra/HT file photo)

In his 22-year-long political career Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik has alway been on the ruling side. This summer, can Odisha’s most famous bachelor continue this dream run?

Patnaik’s rivals, at least some, see him in awe (others accuse him of whimsy) and his own colleagues find him enigmatic and immune to the many perks of power politics. He started his career in Parliament in 1997 but loves to stay within the limits of his state. His party won 20 of the state’s 21 seats in last Lok Sabha but it has a limited national agenda. People love to hear him but he talks as less as possible. Now 72, Paktanik faces arguably his biggest political test as a strong Bharatiya Janata Party tries to expand footprint in the coastal state.

Patnaik was an MP in the ruling United Front in 1997. He became a union minister in 1998. Since 2000, he has headed Odisha. His politics hinges on three factors: populist measures , such as rice for ₹1/kilo for poor people or the new guaranteed income scheme for farmers; allowing bureaucrats to run the administration much like what the late J Jayalalithaa (he enjoyed a great rapport with her) did in Tamil Nadu; and poaching popular leaders from rival parties to minimise contest.

“He is a very different of a political leader. He doesn’t care much about many sides of the administration but remains very clued about schemes or matters that can affect votes,” said former Odisha chief secretary Jugal Kishore Mahapatra.

Many of his party MPs lament his limited interest in national politics. Once, party MP Pinaki Misra suggested to him that the BJD should have a Delhi office. Naveen replied: “Why do you need a separate office? You can use my (ancestral) house there” and closed the topic. A few years ago, Patnaik enquired if his party’s Lok Sabha floor leader Bhartruhari Mahtab was free to meet him. Sensing urgency, Mahtab rushed to Patnaik’s place only to accompany his leader to Khan Market. There, the CM spent an hour at a photo shop to choose the correct frames to mount some exquisite paintings.

Patnaik and the BJP have enjoyed a good relationship in the not-so-distant past.

As recent as last year, the BJD walked out of the Lok Sabha to avoid participation in the debate on the no trust motion against the Narendra Modi government. It supported the NDA on many issues including demonetisation and GST. Naveen had a stable partnership with the BJP in Odisha from 2000 to 2009. The alliance broke after communal clashes spread across Odisha’s Kandhamal district following the assassination of Swami Lakshamananda, a Hindutva ideologue who was active against Christian missionaries.

Now, Naveen faces the biggest challenge from the same BJP. Acting fast, Patnaik changed 16 of his party’s 20 sitting MPs for this poll. “This looks like a direct fight between BJP and BJD as the Congress has weakened. Earlier, in 50% of the seats the BJD fought against the Congress and in the remaining seats, it fought against the BJP. Now the BJP is invariably everywhere,” observed Mahtab in the ongoing simultaneous polls for assembly and Lok Sabha in the state.

Patnaik knows his personal charisma and credibility is the key to the BJD’s fortune. His rival, former Congress state president Sharat Patnaik dubs him a “good man”. Forgiving Odiyas, too, hail him as different from other politicians. During the UPA-era, when Patnaik came to his office for an official meeting, then rural minister Jairam Ramesh deliberately played an Odiya song to put Naveen in an awkward position.

Patnaik loves his dogs and French novels. He is not fluent in the local language, but this election will tell the nation if Naveen Patnaik, in these changing times, knows the heartbeat of Odisha.

First Published: Apr 28, 2019 07:18 IST

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