Naveen Patnaik: Carrying the legacy forward

Print edition : May 20, 2022

Naveen Patnaik addressing party workers in Bhubaneswar on January 23, 2010, after being re-elected as president of the Biju Janata Dal. Photo: The Hindu PHOTO ARCHIVES

Naveen Patnaik after unveiling the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023 logo at the Kalinga hockey stadium in Bhubaneswar on April 14. The turnaround in Indian hockey mirrors Odisha’s transition to a thriving economy with improved human development indices under the BJD government. Photo: BISWARANJAN ROUT

Naveen Patnaik was leading a bohemian lifestyle, creating the impression that he was not cut out for politics. By plunging headlong into politics after his father Biju Patnaik’s demise in 1997, he proved the sceptics wrong.

IN March 2023, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik will equal the record of Jyoti Basu, who was Chief Minister of West Bengal for 23 years from 1977 to 2000. Patnaik took over as Chief Minister of Odisha in 2000, the very same year Jyoti Basu was succeeded by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as Chief Minister. When Jyoti Basu stepped down at the age of 86, citing age-related health problems, several political observers had opined that it was unlikely that any other leader would be able to match this “longevity feat in the Chief Minister’s chair”. But Naveen Patnaik is well on course to not just match Jyoti Basu’s record but also overtake it. Naveen Patnaik won his last election in 2019, and the term of the Assembly will end in 2024. Naveen Patnaik will then be 77 years old, nine years younger than the age at which Jyoti Basu stepped down as Chief Minister.

This political feat of Naveen Patnaik is unique in many ways. While Jyoti Basu was a keen follower of political matters right from a young age and was a spirited anti-imperialist freedom fighter even when he was pursuing his education in England in the 1930s, Naveen Patnaik had showed little interest in politics in his youth. This, despite being the son of Biju Patnaik, a legendary freedom fighter and two-time Chief Minister of Odisha. People who had been associated with both the senior and junior Patnaiks told Frontline that although Naveen Patnaik spent most of his youth in Delhi, he was never to be seen at Biju Patnaik’s Delhi home, and even when he was around, he kept a studied distance from his father’s political friends and aides.

At that time, Naveen Patnaik had made a reputation for himself as a bohemian with a keen interest in the finer things of life. He had also established himself as a writer and a socialite with a keen interest in cultural matters. Hariraj Singh Tyagi, the socialist leader from Meerut who passed away in 2009, had told Frontline in the early 2000s that he had occasion to observe Naveen when Biju Patnaik and he were in the Janata Dal. Tyagi said Naveen Patnaik had made his living space a meeting ground for the cultural elite. Among Naveen Patnaik’s guests were Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the widow of President John F. Kennedy, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, actress Koo Stark, who once dated Prince Andrew of Britain, and Bruce Chatwin, travel writer and novelist. So, the general perception about Naveen Patnaik among those who closely worked with the Patnaik family then was that the youngest child of Biju was not cut out for politics.

When Biju Patnaik passed away in 1997, his associates and friends had looked up to Prem Patnaik, Biju’s elder son, to take over the leadership and continue the political legacy of the family, which had a deep-rooted connection with the masses and was a symbol of Odia identity in social, cultural and historical terms. But Prem Patnaik did not respond favourably to the suggestion because he felt his business interests would get compromised if he entered politics. The second choice was Biju’s daughter Gita Mehta, who had established herself as a writer and documentary film-maker by the early 1980s. However, many associates of Biju Patnaik and Gita Mehta herself believed that she was temperamentally not suited for a political career.

There was little doubt among Biju Patnaik’s friends and associates that his political legacy had to be carried forward by someone in the family. Finally the choice fell on Naveen Patnaik. His reticence to talk about politics and his stand-offish attitude towards his father’s political associates and aides was well known by then, and to make matters worse Naveen Patnaik was not fluent in Odia even at the level of basic conversation, not to speak of public speaking. But, Biju Patnaik’s associates realised they had no other option but to choose him as his father’s political successor. Finally, when Naveen Patnaik agreed to take up his father’s mantle, there were many opinions as to how Naveen Patnaik agreed to join politics. One stream of thought was that Naveen Patnaik was forced by his siblings and other family members to contest from the Aska Lok Sabha constituency, which had fallen vacant upon his father’s death.

But others, including Tyagi, were of the view that there was no compulsion. “I know it for a fact that it was Naveen’s own decision. From what I know, Naveen had told Prem that since he and Gita had refused, he was ready to contest from Aska.” This is what Tyagi had told Frontline in 2004, when Naveen Patnaik was contesting the Odisha Assembly election seeking a second term in office. Tygai said Naveen Patnaik’s track record (four years in politics) was not that of a person disinterested in politics. He had shown a clear perspective in terms of governance, policy formulation and, indeed, political management and manoeuvring. Tyagi added that the three books written by Naveen Patnaik —A Second Paradise (1985), Desert Kingdom (1990), and The Garden of Life (1993)—had a sense of history ingrained in them. The first book was about courtly life in India from the 16th century to 1947. The second was on the Rajputs of Bikaner, while the third was about rare plants species.

Formation of BJD

Tyagi said his skills in political management and manoeuvring came to the fore in one of Naveen Patnaik’s first moves as his father’s political heir. He initiated moves to break away from the Janata Dal and formed the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). He also formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the first two terms of his government. “The Congress was his principal adversary in the State in the late 1990s and early 2000s and he adopted a practical path of rallying forces against this principal rival,” Tyagi had told Frontline. When the BJP started flexing its political muscle and aggressively pushed a communal sectarian agenda, Naveen Patanaik broke the alliance and showed the saffron party the door.

Several factors have contributed to Naveen Patnaik’s longevity in power. As emphasised by several political observers and practitioners, his style of governance is marked by proactive and detailed planning based on a positive and people-oriented approach coupled with a proactive action plan, which is implemented primarily on the strength of a trusted bureaucracy. It has been pointed out that this proactive action mode has remained with him through his five consecutive terms as Chief Minister, which has resulted in a steady application of ideas to realise the aspirations of a new Odisha by transforming the State in various spheres, touching all aspects of life and society.

Apart from good governance and the Naveen Patnaik stamp on it, efforts to nurture the regional identity is a factor that has made the Naveen Patnaik regime stronger. Historically, Odisha had time and again opted for regional political expressions, essentially based on a linguistic identity. As early as the 1930s, there was a powerful social and political movement for a separate State uniting Odia-speaking tracts. The formation of Odisha in 1936 under the British Raj marked the creation of the first Indian province on linguistic lines. In a striking similarity with Tamil Nadu, Odia politicians have time and again militated against the power and control of the Union government, both before and after independence.

Biju Patnaik had harped on this theme even when he was a prominent leader in the Congress. This stream of politics led to the creation of several regional outfits, right from the first post-Independence Lok Sabha election held in 1952. Prominent regional outfits thus created included the Ganatantra Parishad, the Jana Congress and the Utkal Congress, formed by Biju Patnaik after he left the Indian National Congress in 1970. In the formation of the BJD, Naveen Patnaik had tapped into this powerful regional identity and its social and political expressions.

Significantly, the BJD and its leaders do not raise or discuss ideological issues at the national level. The party and its leader take special care to uphold the regional identity and shape their politics and governance in such a manner that regional pride is enhanced. Beyond these factors, the personal attributes of Naveen Patnaik have also worked in favour of the party and its leaders. The fact that Naveen Patnaik is single, soft-spoken and respectful in his interactions with the people has increased his popularity.

Large sections of the population demur at attributing anything vile to the Chief Minister. These sections also believe that he cannot be corrupt since he has no children to pass his wealth on to. More importantly, the realpolitik manoeuvres and intrigues that the Chief Minister has had to launch against his political opponents in the party are perceived by these sections as something that he was compelled to do on account of their abominable actions. Indeed, it is a phenomenal journey of a person that saw his transformation from a cocktail circuit socialite in Delhi, as he was then branded, to one of the most powerful regional leaders of the country, steadily and repeatedly winning the confidence of the people of his State.