As the BJD celebrates 20 years of its existence today, it is perhaps an appropriate time to ponder over the question posed in the headline. Naveen Patnaik has had an unfettered, unchallenged reign for these 20 years, both in the party and the government. But at 71, he isn’t getting younger. The question of succession, therefore, is neither irrelevant nor premature.
If Naveen has a succession plan ready, he has kept it so close to his chest that even other parts of his own body don’t get a whiff of it! In his utterances so far, the BJD supremo has given absolutely no indication that he is even thinking along those lines. But it is hard to believe that at this stage of his glorious political career, the thought of a successor wouldn’t have crossed his mind, at least in passing. For a while, there was speculation that Naveen’s nephew Arun (elder brother Prem Patnaik’s son) was being groomed to carry the Biju legacy forward after Naveen. When he visited Odisha last – in January, 2015 to sign documents gifting Anand Bhavan, the Patnaiks’ ancestral house in Cuttack, to the state government – Arun himself had scotched all such rumours saying “I have no plans to join politics”, though he did add the rider ‘for now’, which many interpreted as keeping the door open for a future date with politics. But in the nearly three years since the time, there has been nothing to suggest that it was anything but inspired speculation.
That it has to be someone from the family or – at the very least – someone officially anointed by Naveen Patnaik before he walks into the sunset is a no-brainer. Any other scenario – where Naveen recedes to the background without formally nominating a successor – must be too scary to contemplate for him. Without the glue that binds everyone, the party could well disintegrate into two, three or more splinter groups, each claiming to be the ‘real’ BJD. That glue, given the culture of the party, can only come from the family. Any outsider, even if nominated by Naveen himself, may find the going tough in the long run. We must remember that Naveen himself had been roped in by a group of warring factional leaders as head of the party at the time of its formation exactly 20 years ago precisely for this reason though his was a whole world away from politics at the time. That’s why the chances of Arun Patnaik coming into the reckoning sometime in the future cannot be ruled out altogether. [Notwithstanding the rumours doing the rounds when Gita Patnaik, Naveen’s elder sister, came visiting last summer, I, for one, don’t think there is any possibility of either she or brother Prem ‘succeeding’ their younger brother.]
May be Arun is the trump card Naveen has up his sleeve but doesn’t want to show it to anyone for the moment. That could well be the reason Naveen has not allowed anyone, whether as a matter of deliberate policy or by sheer impulse, to even come close to being seen as his successor. He has constantly played musical chairs with senior leaders, never allowing anyone to last long enough in a position of power and influence to fancy himself as the successor. In any case, most of the senior leaders have either passed away, have been shown the door (like Prafulla Ghadai) or are in the doghouse (like Damodar Rout). That leaves the likes of Surjya Patra, Maheswar Mohanty, Prasanna Acharya and Debi Mishra none of whom can claim to have the charisma or the following in the party to be accepted as the unquestioned leader. This scary scenario alone suggests that Naveen cannot possibly be entirely impervious to the question of succession.
There is, however, another possible scenario which, while in the realm of possibility, may sound utterly weird and preposterous. It is possible, though highly improbable, that like King Louis XV of France, Naveen will just say “Apres moi, le deluge” (“After me, the deluge”) before receding from the scene, leaving the party that was born with him to die with him.