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Odisha's Architect of Change: Naveen Patnaik's Remarkable Legacy

27 years ago, he inherited a state that ranked lowest in the country in terms of the human development index.

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Apana Mane Khusi Ta? (Are you guys happy?)

A simple question that made millions of Odias smile every single time Naveen Patnaik made a public appearance. It was never a question for them but rather a validation that said everything was alright in the state.

Earlier this week, when Naveen Patnaik, once invincible, ended his 24-year reign as the Chief Minister of Odisha, one can say with certainty that a million tears were shed to celebrate his incredible legacy. The baton of leading the state has now been passed onto the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after their resounding victory in the assembly elections, but beyond any party affiliations, the people of Odisha were emotional to bid farewell to the man who put the state on the global map.

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27 years ago, when Patnaik came to Odisha to fill the void left by his father, Biju Patnaik, the tallest politician emerging from the land of Lord Jagannath, he inherited a state that ranked lowest in the country in terms of the human development index. He had no business getting his hands dirty in politics. An author himself whose Delhi circuit guest lists often include the likes of Mick Jagger, Jacqueline Kennedy, and Robert De Niro, Patnaik had a life sorted in Lutyens' Delhi.

He could’ve resigned to a life of luxury in any sprawling estate around the world instead of coming to a state perennially struggling to put food on the table. He could’ve never wanted a life of uncertainty. Yet, as legend has it, he asked his brother Prem and sister, Gita Mehta, another terrific writer of her time, to let him go and serve the people of the state.

Now, that long reign is over, and so is Patnaik's unquestioned dominance in Indian politics. Sure, he has been elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and, most likely, will be the leader of the opposition in Odisha. But it is easy to presume that it would be his last appearance in an election, considering his deteriorating health and age.

Then how would Odisha remember Naveen Patnaik? It’s a question befitting one of the most complex and important figures in Indian polity.

Odisha was a poster child for third-world poverty in the late 90s and early 2000s when Patnaik came along. Super Cyclone 1999 had broken the state’s back and had led the coastal Odisha to an economic disaster. According to the 1997 census of BPL families in the Kalahandi Balangir Koraput Region (KBK Region), 72 percent of families were below the poverty line. Patnaik inherited a situation that wasn’t easy to handle for any seasoned chief minister, least of all a newbie in the political domain and someone who doesn’t even speak the language of the state.

24 years of Chief ministership later, Odisha is not only a shining example of Zero Casualty during natural calamities but has also been a model for other countries to follow. The state capital Bhubaneswar shines as the newest destination for skyline investments and IT parks, but also as the sports capital of the country. Odisha was the first government to sponsor a sports team and organised two back-to-back Hockey World Cups with a level of glamour that could only be dreamt by others.

In terms of development, Odisha boasts perhaps some of the best road infrastructure in the country, and every village is connected by concrete roads. Making accessibility to the state capital, where AIIMS is located, and with the adjacent city, Cuttack, where SCB Medical College and Hospital provide healthcare services to the entire state, was perhaps the BJD Government’s biggest success story.

The Infocity Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Patia to aid IT investments, the Electronic Manufacturing Cluster (EMC), the Petroleum, Chemical, and Petrochemical Investment Region (PCPIR) in 284.15 sq km of land spread over Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara districts, with Indian Oil Corporation Ltd (IOCL) as the anchor tenant, spoke volumes of Patnaik’s legacy.

Apart from that, the Kalinganagar National Investment Manufacturing Zone, Plastic Park in Paradeep, and Special Investment Region in the Dhamara Port area boast some of the biggest achievements in promoting local employment.
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Infrastructure development aside, what made Patnaik such an endearing figure to the people of Odisha was his clean image and staunch hatred towards corrupt politicians.

Every time a story emerged about a BJD leader’s involvement in any scam — the chit-fund scam being the biggest of all — invariably, Patnaik took action and didn’t let the opposition hold any sway. He maintained that clean image for the entire duration, and the people of Odisha lapped onto the idea that the state was in the safe hands of Patnaik. Failing to break that barrier was the Odisha opposition’s biggest failure till 2024.

As bureaucracy started to gain a stronghold in Odisha in the last five years, state BJD leaders started losing touch with people. Access to Naveen Niwas became few and far between — and so did Patnaik’s connections with people. Making that the primary poll agenda, the BJP succeeded in dethroning Patnaik from the ruling position.

But no matter what the future holds for Patnaik, his tenure will be remembered with a lot of fond memories. The mighty has fallen, but that’s life.

(Bastab K Parida is a writer based out of Bengaluru and has been reporting on cricket for the last eight years. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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