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Odisha Assembly Polls: Is VK Pandian's Dominance Going to Cost Naveen Patnaik?

VK Pandian perhaps believes and hopes that he will ease into the role of the 'inheritor' between now and 2029.

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Opinion
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(This is the 15th in a series of insightful reports from the ground, titled The Race From India to Bharat. The author travels all across India as 960 million voters celebrate the largest festival of democracy in the world: the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. What do ordinary Indians think and feel about the past, present, and future of India? Are they convinced that the old fault lines are healing?)

For more than a decade, he has been the eyes and ears of the ever-popular Naveen Patnaik who has broken the record of Jyoti Basu of being the longest-serving chief minister of a major state.

When Naveen Patnaik first took oath as the chief minister of Odisha in 2000, a young 26-year-old VK Pandian from Tamil Nadu cracked the civil services entrance and became an IAS officer.

Originally given the Punjab cadre, he was moved to Odisha in 2002 where he acquired something similar to a rock star following due to his hard work, innovative ideas and genuine gestures to help the poor.

Perhaps, his most notable behind-the-scenes achievement has been the spectacular manner in which Odisha has promoted hockey and other sports. It is because of this, that Pandian is admired by many in Odisha. In November 2023, he took voluntary retirement and plunged full-time into politics as a leader of the ruling Biju Janata Dal. Currently, Pandian is the chairman of 5T, a transformational initiative planned by him and backed publicly by Naveen Patnaik.

VK Pandian perhaps believes and hopes that he will ease into the role of the 'inheritor' between now and 2029.

A file photo of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

(Photo: PTI)
Most people in Odisha are convinced that it is Pandian who really calls the shots in Odisha on a day-to-day basis while an ageing and ailing Naveen Patnaik tacitly backs him. Access to Naveen Babu, even for senior cabinet ministers of the state, is allegedly tightly controlled by Pandian who became private secretary to Naveen Patnaik back in 2011.
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Odisha's 'De Facto' Chief Minister

The author met dozens of people in Odisha during the #IndiatoBharat journey. Almost all of them expressed resentment against the manner in which they feel Pandian has become the “de facto” chief minister of Odisha. Some disapprove while a lot express rage.

Perhaps, the most unhappy ones are leaders of the BJD and workers who have to defer to Pandian because he has the blessing and backing of the unchallenged supremo Naveen Patnaik.

Simmering for a few years, the resentment exploded in 2023 when Pandian donned the hat of a full-time politician while still officially serving as a bureaucrat.

In March 2023, Naveen Patnaik officially launched an initiative called “Mo Sarkar” or My Government which was meant to interact with ordinary citizens across the state to get their feedback so that the myriad welfare schemes of the state (which are immensely popular) are further improved. Under normal circumstances, one would expect the ministers, MLAs and other leaders of the ruling party to lead the exercise.

Strangely, all BJD leaders including top cabinet ministers were compelled to play second fiddle to the bureaucrat. On behalf of Naveen Babu, Pandian toured all 30 districts and all 147 constituencies of the state, addressed rallies and gatherings, and rallied support for his mentor Naveen Patnaik. Cabinet ministers were overshadowed on stages as Pandian made it clear who the boss was while people watched from below.
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This triggered a firestorm of controversy. Though no one complained in public, there were clear indications that senior leaders of the party felt humiliated and plenty of media reports covering the exercise.

While those backing the ruling regime hailed both the initiative and Pandian for his “dedication to the poor people and youth of Odisha”, many others pointed out the cruel irony of elected representatives twiddling their thumbs and playing second fiddle while an unelected bureaucrat behaved like a “super chief minister”.

'Unpleasant Surprises' Await Pandian?

At the national level, the BJP and the BJD do not abuse each other but numerous state-level leaders of the BJP openly criticised Pandian as an unelected autocrat who was playing with the sentiments of “Odiya” people and hurting “Odiya” pride. Since most of the media in the state submits to the Naveen regime, one couldn’t find a lot of this resentment against Pandian being reported on a regular basis.

But there have been media professionals who have slammed all this. Sandeep Sahu, a veteran journalist and columnist in the state, says, “This is unacceptable in a democracy. More people should openly come out against this farce being played up in public when powerful and popular leaders are seen kowtowing to this unelected man. Sadly, most media platforms and professionals have raised the white flag”.
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But the firestorm of controversy did have an impact. Pandian was compelled to quit the IAS and become a full-time politician.

But there seems to be fear, too.

Soumya Ranjan Patnaik has been a Congress leader and former Lok Sabha MP who runs arguably the most successful media house in the state. He was part of the BJD and a vocal supporter of Naveen Patnaik for many years. Soon after he wrote critical pieces on the role of Pandian in the state’s politics, his media offices were raided. While these can be termed rumours, most believe he was forced to resign as editor-in-chief, keep quiet and hand over the reins to his daughter. That has actually happened.

Pandian is not contesting either the Lok Sabha or the Assembly elections. There is little doubt that Naveen Patnaik will win a sixth consecutive mandate and become the chief minister yet again. Pandian perhaps believes and hopes that he will ease into the role of the “inheritor” between now and 2029. The author got the impression that unpleasant surprises await Pandian and his soaring ambitions.

(Read part one here, part two here, part three here, part four here, part five here, part six here, part seven here, part eight here, part nine here, part 10 here, part 11 here, part 12 here, part 13 here, and part 14 here.)

(Sutanu Guru is the Executive Director of the CVoter Foundation. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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