View: Who, what and how after Naveen Patnaik in Odisha amid Lok Sabha election 2024 frenzy? - Hindustan Times
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View: Who, what and how after Naveen Patnaik in Odisha amid Lok Sabha election 2024 frenzy?

Apr 22, 2024 02:06 PM IST

People who track Odisha know that 2024 will perhaps be the last election for Naveen Patnaik, who is set to hang up his boots.

Tens of thousands of devotees are lining up patiently at 6 AM as we exit the spanking new car parking bay and move towards the Jagannath Temple. People who have come to Puri after a few years will struggle to recognise the place. Just as Narendra Modi has done with the Kashi Vishwanath Corridor, Naveen Patnaik has invested 800 crores on the Jagannath Mandir Corridor that has dramatically transformed the area around the temple. Gone are the encroachments, the obstructions and the dirt, replaced by streamlined metal corridors for devotees to enter the temple premises for a darshan. Like in Kashi, the project faced many protests. But like Modi, Naveen Babu ignored the critics and went ahead.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. (ANI)
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. (ANI)

Just as Modi is admired, respected and even loved by citizens across vast swathes of India, Naveen is the charismatic icon of Odisha. Like Modi has done across India, Naveen has invested heavily in improving physical and digital infrastructure in Odisha. Like Modi was won tens of millions of hearts through a slew of welfare schemes, Naveen too has won the sworn loyalty of millions of unique welfare scheme beneficiaries. In case you didn’t know, Disha was the first major state to provide cash assistance via DBT to landless agricultural labour just like land owning farmers. Just as Modi looks almost certain to become prime minister for the third time, Naveen Babu looks certain to become chief minister of Odisha for a record shattering sixth consecutive time.

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Many think Narendra Modi will probably hang up his boots before, during or after the 2029 Lok Sabha elections when he will be 79 years old. People who track Odisha know that 2024 will perhaps be the last election for Naveen Patnaik because he will almost certainly hang up his boots whether he likes it or not. Mainstream media outlets in the state don’t often discuss and debate this: but almost everyone “off the record” knows and says that the 77 year old Naveen Babu is suffering from serious ailments. He rarely travels and has been seen to be not in the pink of health the few occasions when he has addressed public rallies. Back in 2022, Naveen Patnaik issued an emphatic statement that said he is in good health and that some people are needlessly spreading falsehoods about his so-called ailments. Yet, talk to any media professional or anyone in Bhubaneswar including supporters of the ruling Biju Janata Dal and there is a near consensus that it would be well nigh impossible for Naveen Babu to actively and aggressively campaign in the 2029 elections. Even this time around, Naveen Babu has addressed not too many public rallies across the state as voters get ready to elect 21 Lok Sabha MPs and 147 assembly MLAS in the next few weeks. Even if the BJD supremo doesn’t suffer from any serious ailments, he will be 82 years old in 2029.

To that extent, the buzz in political circles of Odisha is as much about the future as the imminent elections. At the moment, the ruling BJD reigns supreme thanks to the immense personal popularity of Naveen Patnaik. But then the big question is: who and what after Naveen Patnaik? The party faces a conundrum the way AIDMK faced in Tamil Nadu. Till J. Jayalalitha was around, the party almost always had a big edge over rival DMK. But after her death, the AIDMK has splintered into many factions and is a pale shadow of its former self. It lost badly in the 2019 Lok Sabha & 2021 assembly elections and by all accounts, is set to lose badly again in 2024. Does a similar fate lie ahead for the BJD? Remember, there is no “dynastic inheritor” to Naveen Patnaik just as there was none to Jayalalitha. Besides, virtually all the top leaders who co-founded the BJD with Naveen Patnaik in December 2007 have left or have been eased out by Naveen Babu. So overwhelming is the dominance of Patnaik that there is no worthwhile and charismatic second rung leadership. To top it all, former bureaucrat and eyes and ears of Patnaik V. K. Pandian is now a full-time politician and positions himself as the inheritor. Other BJD leaders will never allow that and are keeping quiet now only because Naveen Babu pubic backs him. But the knives will be out in the long run in a post Naveen era.

The Congress had a great opportunity to revive its fortunes in the last decade and half. But its vote share has declined from close to 30% in 2009 to about 15% in 2019. For all practical purposes, the BJP looks ready to emerge the biggest beneficiary in the post Naveen era.

(Sutanu Guru has been a journalist and author for 35 years. He is the executive director, CVoter Foundation. This is part of a series of field reports from all corners of India in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections that aim to understand how the country is changing in fundamental ways)

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