In 1997, the death of the veteran Odia politician Bijayananda Patnaik opened the space for his 51-year-old son, Naveen Patnaik, to contest elections for the first time. At the time, political leaders in the state expected Naveen to attract voters who were sympathetic to his father, but did not have greater expectations of the debutant politician. But Naveen has surprised his sceptics—he is presently serving his fourth consecutive term as the chief minister of Odisha.
In a recent political biography titled, Naveen Patnaik, the journalist Ruben Banerjee chronicles Naveen’s life and success in politics. In the following extract, Banerjee recounts a formative moment in Naveen Patnaik’s political career, in which he cemented his position as a leader of the Biju Janata Dal and a chief ministerial candidate, by pre-empting any challenge to his supremacy by the party leader Bijoy Mohapatra. “Naveen’s supporters said it was a masterstroke,” Banerjee writes. “His opponents said it was Machiavellian.”
Though new to the game, Naveen was already conscious of his image. He knew his biggest draw at that point was his family lineage and his perceived innocence. Unlike the other politicians, he was untainted and unsullied. He wanted to stay clean. He did not want people to know that he was staying at a five-star hotel while seeking to be the leader of a state known for its back-breaking poverty. Nor did he want them to know that he loved to smoke. He wished to be perceived as a “good boy” in all ways, even if it meant being a little deceitful.
His voters responded enthusiastically to what they saw in their virtuous candidate and Naveen again won handsomely. But this Lok Sabha, too, was short-lived and there was another general election the next year, in 1999. Again, he won and continued to be the union minister for steel and mines without any resistance from his ambitious BJD colleagues.
Bijoy Mohapatra, the prime mover behind the formation of the BJD, was least perturbed to see Naveen growing in stature as a politician. A long-time aide of Biju Patnaik, he had been his irrigation minister and number two in the government between 1990 and 1995. He was short and slender, but, colleagues insisted, he had tall ambitions for himself. He was a consummate politician, known for his astuteness. But he was not a people’s man or a mass leader, and his influence was confined mostly to his home district of Kendrapara and the adjoining districts in coastal Odisha. His strength lay in back-room politics. He was an organisation man. Most BJD MLAs were hand-picked by him and owed their loyalty to him.
Since he had the support of the majority of the legislators and was the most experienced of politicians in the fledgling BJD, Mohapatra was made the chairman of its powerful political affairs committee. Those close to Mohapatra thought he was destined to be the next Odisha chief minister. The ruling Congress was hugely unpopular and Naveen was inexperienced, besides being away in Delhi as a union minister. The chief minister’s crown, they felt, was for Mohapatra to take.
With the assembly elections of 2000 drawing closer, Mohapatra was busy strategising and selecting candidates for the impending polls. Not that the party needed much strategising, given the unpopularity of the ruling Congress. It was said that even a bamboo pole nominated by the BJD would win the elections resoundingly against a Congress candidate. As the election date neared, Mohapatra had a spring in his step. He filed his nomination papers early for the election from his home constituency of Patkura in Kendrapara district. Other party nominees had been chosen and had also filed their papers. The stage was set for a BJD sweep of the state when the all-powerful PAC met at the New Marrion hotel in Bhubaneswar for a final stocktaking. It was the last day for filing of nominations and the deadline was only hours away when Mohapatra and other PAC members trooped into the hotel.
It was a clear, crisp day when the PAC [political affairs committee] session began. Though a union minister, Naveen was contesting the assembly election from Hinjili, in his Aska parliamentary constituency, but all of Mohapatra’s men felt their leader was on course for bigger things. Even if Naveen was to become the chief minister, they knew the coveted chair would come to Mohapatra sooner or later. Mohapatra had chosen most of the candidates and they were all his men. And who hadn’t heard of what N Chandrababu Naidu had done to his father-in-law, NT Rama Rao (NTR), in Andhra Pradesh? NTR, the matinee idol, had won a resounding victory for his Telugu Desam Party and become chief minister for the third time, only to be dethroned by his son-in-law, who walked away with most of the legislators, the party and the chief ministership.
The PAC meeting, with all members except Naveen in attendance, continued well after lunch. At around 2 pm, Mohapatra’s mobile rang. At the other end was a frantic supporter from his home constituency in Patkura. The caller’s voice was charged with emotion. What he said left Mohapatra dumbfounded. While he was chairing the PAC meeting in Bhubaneswar, Naveen, as president of the party, had cancelled Mohapatra’s nomination as the candidate from Patkura and chosen another as the party candidate. With just hours left for the deadline, the new candidate, Atanu Sabyasachi, had filed his papers a little while earlier. Mohapatra was devastated. His mobile buzzed again and again with more supporters from Patkura calling to give him the news. The PAC meeting ended abruptly. All the party’s top leaders were present and they expressed shock at what Naveen had done. They sought to console Mohapatra, but struggled to find the right words. Undoubtedly, Mohapatra would one day have challenged Naveen’s supremacy by exercising his clout in the party and Naveen would possibly have been bested. But Naveen had pre-empted him and, with one blow, left them all speechless.
Politics anywhere is treacherous. Friends turn foe routinely and no one really knows who is a well-wisher and who an enemy and for how long. Odisha politics was no different—it had seen its share of skulduggery and back-stabbing. But this was a new low. Naveen’s supporters said it was a masterstroke. His opponents said it was Machiavellian.
Though outwardly a soft and gentle person, who constantly talked of propriety, Naveen had masterminded and executed a plot that left Mohapatra high and dry. Patkura, from where Mohapatra would have to file a new nomination to contest, was a two-hour drive from Bhubaneswar and it was already past two, with just about an hour left for the deadline to pass. There was no way he could make it there and file fresh nomination papers as an independent candidate.
This is an edited excerpt from the publishing house Juggernaut’s recent book, Naveen Patnaik, written by Ruben Banerjee.
Ruben Banerjee is the editor of Outlook magazine.