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Published on: June 10, 2024, 11:54 a.m.
Finally, Naveen passes the baton
  • Patnaik: Odisha’s Mr Clean

By Rakesh Joshi. Executive Editor, Business India

The soft-spoken Naveen Patnaik, a miracle of Indian politics, has passed the baton to a new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in Odisha after 24 years and three months in power in Odisha. When he tendered his resignation, it marked the end of the tenure of a regional satrap who ruled a state for the second-longest period after Pawan Kumar Chamling of Sikkim. Despite his long stint in office, he did not get ensnared in any corruption scandal. In that sense, he was Odisha’s Mr Clean.

A reluctant politician in the beginning, he proved to be a cut above the rest. His early interest lay in art and literature. At one point, he loved to hobnob with the international jet set. Indeed, politics was never on his mind till the death of his father and two-term CM Biju Patnaik in 1997. When it became imminent, he didn't shy away from taking the plunge. He broke away from the Janata Dal and launched his own Biju Janata Dal. 

That Patnaik thrived politically with some obvious handicaps makes his stint as CM even more remarkable. For instance, Patnaik could not speak Odia without reading it off a paper from scripts written in Roman alphabets. Perhaps, he was the only chief minister in the country who was not completely comfortable with the local language. 

Unlike other politicians, Patnaik set his focus on the state rather than nurturing national ambitions and that gave him flexibility in dealing with several governments at the Centre while pushing for the state's interest. How will history view Patnaik? When he took oath as the 14th CM of Odisha, the state was struggling to revive after the deadly after effects of the1999 cyclone.

It was difficult for any leader to think beyond relief and rehabilitation at that time. Odisha was then a poor state lagging on many national social parameters. After two-and-a-half decades of Patnaik's leadership, the state now presents a picture of aspiration, grit and determination. It is now a sought-after destination for industrialists due to its natural resources.

A household name

The recipe for Patnaik's success as a CM over two-and-a-half decades, was a right mix of welfare and development catering to the poor and aspirational class simultaneously. 'Naveen Babu' became a household name with his welfare schemes of free rice, health care and houses.His model of politics of state first is now being adopted by several state governments in the south.

Patnaik’s contribution to the promotion of hockey by building a world class sports infrastructure   will always be remembered. The support has not only helped in nurturing the existing talent   but also encouraged the emergence of new stars like Amit Rohidas.

 The performance of Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in the assembly elections was not poor – a 40.22 per cent vote share, that was marginally ahead of the BJP’s 40.07 per cent. But the BJP was able to win in more constituencies, getting 78 of the 147 seats as against the BJD’s 51. The BJD’s performance in the simultaneously held Lok Sabha polls was slightly worse – its vote share dipped by 2.76 points to 37.46 per cent while the BJP’s increased to 45.41 per cent, by a whopping 5.34 points. Clearly, a section of BJD voters preferred the BJP for the Lok Sabha despite voting for the incumbent in the assembly elections.

  • The recipe for Patnaik's success as a CM over two-and-a-half decades, was a right mix of welfare and development catering to the poor and aspirational class simultaneously. 'Naveen Babu' became a household name with his welfare schemes of free rice, health care and houses

The BJD’s failure can be attributed to Patnaik’s diminishing appeal, his frail health and his dependence on former bureaucrat-turned politician V.K. Pandian who became his right-hand man. The party had assiduously built its popularity on the basis of welfare measures, including targeted schemes in the largely agrarian state.  P

atnaik garnered much of the credit for these schemes and each electoral victory over the years deepened his support base. But the BJP emphasised on his failings.  The insularity of this campaign notwithstanding, the question of Patnaik’s succession was deftly used by the BJP to sow doubts in the BJD’s base. A number of defections from the BJD to the BJP over the years also helped the BJP seize the initiative.

That prior to the elections, both parties had engaged in parleys to contest as an alliance and the BJP later broke off the talks suggest that the BJP had an inkling that it stood a better chance fighting the BJD. 

The BJD’s policy of endorsing most of the BJP-led government’s measures, including controversial ones, and to play the role of a friendly party that was not part of the NDA backfired, just as it did with the YSRCP in Andhra Pradesh. Political analysts believe that the BJD’s loss of power and the rapid decline of the YSRCP and BRS (in Telangana) offer a cautionary tale about these parties’ policy of equivocation vis-à-vis the BJP.

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