Why Naveen Succeeds
Indian politics is full of ironies. Take the case of Odisha and its Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. As a state, Odisha was created in 1936 precisely on the basis of Oriya being the predominant language of the people in the contagious areas of the then British Presidencies of Bengal and Madras. That full justice was not done to the Oriyas then as many of them were left behind in what are today’s states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal is a different matter. What is relevant is that a state formed on linguistic basis has a Chief Minister who is yet to master the Oriya language. But then, he is not an ordinary Chief Minister. Naveen Patnaik, son of the legendary Biju Patnaik, has been ruling the state since March 5, 2000. He has not lost a single election, be it at the local (panchayat or municipal) level or at the Assembly level or at the national level for the Parliament. In fact, he has emerged stronger with each successive election. And there are little doubts over his victory and that of his party—Biju Janata Dal (BJD)—when next rounds of Assembly and Parliamentary elections are held early next year as scheduled.
Of course, fluency in the local language is not necessarily a prerequisite for being a successful ruler. The East India Company and then the British monarch ruled India for hundreds of years through English, and many older generation people fondly say that during British days India was much better administered than what is the case now. However, this is not to deny the role of mastery over language which gives a politician a distinct advantage in communicating with the ordinary people. As leaders, the likes of Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lalu Yadav and Narendra Modi have been excellent political communicators. But this advantage due to language is not enough to determine a leader’s eventual success or failure. It has certainly not been a factor behind the rise and rise of Naveen Patnaik.
In more senses than one, the Odisha Chief Minister is a nonconventional politician. He is not easily accessible. He prefers to keep himself in a low profile. He is rarely seen in social gatherings. In fact, all this is highly surprising given the fact that before he came to the politics in 1996 at the age of 50, he was regarded as one of the leading socialites of Delhi. Better known as “Pappu” (that is his nick name; it was not used the way it is being derisively used these days for Rahul Gandhi in the so-called coffee-table talks in Delhi, particularly in “Pappu Vs. Fekku” syndrome; “Fekku” standing for Narendra Modi), he was rubbing shoulders with famous and rich of not only Delhi but also New York and Paris.
Naveen is a politician by accident. His father had not promoted him in politics. When Biju died in 1996, leaders of the then undivided Janata Dal at the Centre persuaded Naveen to take his father’s role by contesting a Lok Sabha by-election from Odisha. The dynasty factor, so important in Indian politics these days, did play a role in Naveen becoming politician, but I would say that he was a reluctant dynast. One understands why he was coaxed into politics by then United Front government, most of whose important leaders were essentially promoters of political dynasties—Deve Gowda, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Yadav, Chandrababu Naidu and Karunanidhi. Secondly, to be fair to Naveen, though he came through the dynasty route, his subsequent political success has had nothing to do with his father’s legacy. In fact, he has been a much more successful Chief Minister than his father. Unlike Biju Patnaik, who was chief minister during 1961-63 and then during 1990-95, Naveen has been the Chief Minister uninterrupted for 13 years, with no sign whatsoever of losing it in considerable future, unless, of course, he decides to return to his home city Delhi to be an important player in the national politics.
In my considered view, more than the dynastic or his father’s legacy, Naveen has been helped by two salient features of Odisha politics. One is the fact that Odisha has been quintessentially a non-Congress state. In the 1950s, the Congress led the government but through alliances with independents and Jharkhand party, and later with the main opposition party, Ganatantra Parishad (predecessor of the Swatantra party). In fact, it was an extraordinary event in India’s electoral history that the ruling party and the leading opposition joined together to form a government under Harekrushna Mahatab. It was only in 1961 mid-term election that the Congress secured an absolute majority for the first time under the leadership of Biju Patnaik. But, non-Congress parties returned to rule in 1967. From 1972 to 2000, the Congress, first under Nandini Satpathy and then under J B Patnaik provided stable and majority governments. But then, Satpathy, like Biju, left the Congress subsequently. In that sense, the years 1980-90 under J B Patnaik can be described as the golden days of the Congress in Odisha. Otherwise, it has been the non-Congress parties which have dominated the state’s politics.
Secondly, unlike in the cases of other non-Congress ruling parties in India, caste has not played a determining role in Odisha, a huge factor that has helped Naveen Patnaik a great deal. In a sense, be it Mulayam’s Samajwadi party or Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, or even Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U), each, like Naveen’s BJD, has been an ingredient of original and undivided Janata Dal. But the success of BJD, unlike in the cases of its counterparts, never depended on the exploitation of caste factor. Because, caste has never been an important factor in Odisha politics. Broadly speaking, the leadership of Odisha politics has been invariably with the Karans, Khshatriyas and Brahmins. The factor of the OBC—the principal vote-bank of the non-Congress parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is little different in Odisha, as the dominant OBCs—the Khandayats—are economically and socially as good as Karanas.
Besides, unlike in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the OBCs resented the bigger landholdings of the upper castes (that is how the politicisation of the OBC started), in Odisha, the mutual animosities between the upper castes and the OBCs have not been that deep-rooted because of the fact that the sizes of their respective landholdings have been broadly similar. Though the three upper castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Karanas) possessed more than the average-sized agricultural land holding, the Khandayats also possessed comparable quantities of land. According to an important study, nearly one-fourth of all land holdings in Odisha are less than 0.5 hectares in size and nearly 87.7 per cent of all holdings were three hectares or less. With such small land holdings on average, there has been far less potential for political conflict to centre on the issue of agricultural land and along caste lines. It is not that some have not tried to play caste politics; former Speaker of Lok Sabha Rabi Ray (a socialist), and Congress leaders Kahnu Lenka and Shrikant Jena (now a Union minister, but formerly with Biju Patnaik) did try to play with the OBC card but failed. In any case, their OBC politics was mainly centred on internal party rivalry – Rabi Ray Vs Biju Patnaik; Kahnu Lenka Vs JB Patnaik; and Shrikant Jena Vs Biju Patnaik.
If one leaves out the upper castes and the OBCs, then it is the SCs and STs who between them constitute about 40 per cent of Odisha’s population. The Congress has been traditionally strong with the SCs, but the STs, predominantly in the tribal Western Odisha, have invariably supported the former rulers (belonging to the erstwhile Swatantra party and then the BJP). Though most of them remain poor and exploited, most of their leaders, including the emerging ones, have been co-opted by the major parties in the state, and in this Naveen Patnaik leads the race.
Viewed thus, the Odisha Chief Minister is in a formidable position. Because, as far as the upper castes, and that means the traditional middle class in concrete terms, are concerned, his image, compared to any of his rivals, is much higher. Take corruption, the most typical middle class concern in India today. Despite his long stint in power, Naveen has no scam against his name. He is commonly perceived to be non-corruptible, though there are rumours of his family in Delhi striking deals with the businessmen and foreign investors. The fact that he is a bachelor goes well with the people who think that there is no need for him to make money. Besides, to strengthen his anti-corruption image, Naveen, as Chief Minister, has sacked as many as 26 of his Cabinet colleagues either on corruption charges or on moral grounds.
Secondly, he has never allowed any groupism within the ruling BJD and that explains how effortlessly he sacks and appoints ministers. In fact, his working style in a way is similar to that of Narendra Modi—he goes by the suggestions of his bureaucrats on most of the administrative issues. As long as Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, his erstwhile principal bureaucrat-turned advisor, was playing that role, everything was fine; the moment Pyari developed political ambitions, Naveen dumped him.
All told, Naveen is the tallest leader of Odisha at the moment. Odisha has not done badly under him either. Its economy is much better than what it was in 2000 when Naveen took over. The Chief Minister may appear to be an enigma, but he is perceived to be delivering. And in politics, it is ultimately perception that matters.
By Prakash Nanda