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Naveen Patnaik's Bureaucrat-vizier VK Pandian Turns History Many Times Over

VK Pandian officially joined the BJD on 27 November in the presence Patnaik and several senior leaders of the party.

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(This article was originally published on 26 October. It has been updated and republished after VK Pandian officially joined the Biju Janata Dal on 27 November.)

Has history come a full circle in Odisha under Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)?

That question may have a simple "yes" for an answer, but there seems to be a more fascinating history to the appointment of bureaucrat VK Pandian to a pivotal cabinet rank position by the chief minister in October 2023, a day after he quit the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) after being a long-time private secretary to 77-year-old Patnaik, and now by officially joining the BJD on 27 November.

VK Pandian officially joined the BJD on 27 November in the presence Patnaik and several senior leaders of the party.

VK Pandian officially joined the Biju Janata Dal on 27 November in the presence of ministers and several senior leaders of the party.

(Photo: The Quint)

Patnaik, a Western-educated loner and son of Biju Patnaik, whose figure towers over the modern history of the coastal state, has had Pandian as his go-to lieutenant for quite a while now.

The bureaucrat has helped in the political and economic resurgence of a state that is more in the news for cyclones, missile launches, awesome temples and nesting turtles.

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More of a Grand Vizier Than a Civil Servant

The 2000-batch IAS officer's name, Karthikeyan Pandian, sounds like the name of an ancient king from Tamil Nadu. Just as well.

In what could be a mere coincidence or heady raw material for a historical fantasy series on an OTT platform, his appointment brings back memories of a war that took place 913 years ago when a Tamil king invaded what was then called Kalinga, which is another name for Odisha.

But first some interesting realities.

It has been Odisha's worst-kept secret for a while that Pandian has been running the show for Patnaik, whose mysterious, aloof-style hides a sharp mind and more importantly, a man not enticed to the showy shenanigans that many regional chieftains and indeed, national leaders, are known for.

Pandian started out in 2002 as a civil service officer in the poverty-stricken Kalahandi district and made his mark as a champion for farmers. Local legend has it that he helped the CM overcome a power struggle and establish the BJD named after his father as a decisive political force.

As a bureaucrat who won the ruler's trust, Pandian has been more of a grand vizier than a civil servant, if the gossip from Bhubaneswar is to be believed.

So it is not much of a surprise that he took voluntary retirement from the IAS this week to be named as the Chairman of the CM's 5T (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time and Transformation) Initiative and Nabin Odisha (New Odisha) that sounds a lot like the CM's first name.

You may add a sixth T to the 5Ts: Tamil Nadu, Pandian's birth state.

As an unlikely interloper towering over contending politicians to be the CM's blue-eyed lieutenant, Pandian has made some history, but there is more for us to savour from the distant past.

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Are We Seeing a Surreal Replay of History?

What is now called the state of Odisha used to be a part of the Madras Presidency during British rule, and in that sense, there is a regional convergence. But more fascinating is the fact that a friendly Pandian brings intriguing contrast to the state that was twice invaded by a Chola dynasty king.

Kulothunga Chola made Kalinga a part of the Chola Empire after a famous war in 1110 AD in the second of his campaign during which, what is now Odisha, became a vassal state of the Tamil empire. A Pallava lieutenant helped the Chola emperor take Kalinga.

A genre of martial Tamil poetry called Parani that lauds military conquests has a celebrated ballad called Kalingathuparani, a tribute to the Chola victory in the Kalinga war. Kalinga was plundered by invaders as the local king, Anantavarman Chodaganga, fled for his safety.

But it should not surprise us that a Tamilian now becomes a favourite of the contemporary ruler of Kalinga. After all, Pandians and Cholas, both Tamil ruling clans, were sworn enemies a millennium ago, and their rivalry is a high point in this year's Mani Rathnam film, Ponniyin Selvan (PS 1 and 2), made in two parts based on the epic written by "Kalki" Krishnamurthy.

V K Pandian hails from Madurai, the centre of the Pandyan kingdom that had taken on the Cholas.

Are we seeing a surreal replay of history where Karthikeya Pandian stands in to aid a Kalinga ruler in a throwback to fix a rival Chola? We shall leave it to fantasy writers, but what is clear is that the 5Ts that Pandian heads are meant to catapult a mineral and culture-rich but economically laggard coastal state into the league of high-rankers in the emergence of southern India as a global economic force.

The game is no longer about battles featuring hundreds of elephants and sword-wielding warriors but one in which technology and democracy demand new-age victories. Pandian leads the charge for Patnaik the way Karunakara Thondaiman, a Pallava king, led an army on behalf of the Cholas into Kalinga.

Next year's assembly elections should be a fascinating one, as Patnaik has been in the CM's seat for 23 years.

Neither cyclones nor political machinations by party challengers, an entrenched Congress or a belligerent BJP under Narendra Modi, have managed to ravage Patnaik's rule.

A modern-day bugle has been sounded with Pandian's new appointment.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator who has worked for Reuters, Economic Times, Business Standard, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on Twitter @madversity. This is an opinion article and the views expressed 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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Topics:  odisha   Naveen Patnaik   VK Pandian 

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