The Opposition attack on Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for his lack of knowledge of Odia is getting a little too repetitive for comfort. In the 20 years since the formation of the BJD, the supremo has made it abundantly clear that he has absolutely no intention of learning Odia – at least in this lifetime. And by voting him to power for four consecutive terms, each time with a bigger majority, the people of the state have made it abundantly clear that it is a complete non-issue for them. So what exactly is the fuss about?
I recall what Jagneswar Babu, the then spokesperson of the BJD, had told me in an interview on the issue in the run up to the 2009 elections. “He may not be able to speak Odia. But Naveen Babu understands the people’s mann ki bhasha (the interview was in Hindi),” Babu had said. Cynic that I was, I had secretly laughed at the response, but made sure it remained within me. But nine years down the line, I am now convinced Naveen indeed has an emotional connect with the people. Far from having an issue with him for not speaking in the native tongue, they in fact love him precisely for that. One just has to watch how they go wild with ecstasy every time he makes mincemeat of the Odia language.
I also remember what Naveen had told the crowd while campaigning for the Aska Parliamentary seat, which had fallen vacant after his father Biju Patnaik’s demise, as the Janata Dal candidate in 1997. “Odia shikhibaku tike samay lagiba,” he kept saying in meeting after meeting after joining his hands in his customized Namaste. He kept the pretence of trying to learn Odia even after becoming Chief Minister in March, 2000. Sometime in 2001, I and a senior journalist ran into Prof RK Mishra, his ‘official’ tutor, at Naveen Nivas one evening and found him reading a newspaper in the waiting room. “I am waiting for the Chief Minister’s call,” the good professor told us rather apologetically. We later gathered that on most days, the call to go inside never came, forcing him to read up the entire stack of newspapers before leaving!
By that time, Naveen had obviously realized that learning Odia was not a priority for him at all. Why waste time learning a language when you are doing just fine without it? Somewhere along the way, he convinced himself that not knowing Odia, in fact, was one of his USPs – the others being his single status and his sartorial choice – and the people loved him precisely for that. Once he realized this, the services of Prof Mishra were duly dispensed with and all pretence of learning Odia abandoned for good. Party leaders and spokespersons were briefed on how to answer Opposition attacks and media questions on the issue. “Naveen Babu has done more for the Odia language than any previous Chief Minister,” they say every time the question is raised and then go on to cite the conferment of classical status to Odia language, the formation of the Odia Bhasha Pratishthan and the amendment to the Official Language Act, 1954 to make the use of Odia mandatory in official communication to prove their claim. They certainly have a point. And after the Heritage cabinet resolution passed by the cabinet in Puri yesterday, they now have additional ammunition to fob off any attack on the issue!
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Like many others, I too was once extremely touchy about his blunt refusal to learn Odia and his habit of making a mockery of the language every time he spoke in the native tongue. I have rued the lack of pride in Odia among Odia people, engaged in animated debate on the issue with friends and colleagues and written about it at every available opportunity. But it does not perturb me anymore. After all, why should one work himself into a jingoistic frenzy when the people have accepted – and loved – him for what he is? Like their leader, they too understand his mann ki bhasha. So who are we to crib about it? After all, respecting the people’s mandate is the essence of democracy.
The only thing that disturbs me these days is when I see him sweating while reading out his Odia speeches written in Roman script. It is painful to see him strain his vocal cords and contort his facial muscles while pronouncing a difficult Odia word. Or – as it happened at the BJD’s 20-year bash in Puri yesterday – keep his head fixated in one position for several minutes to be able read from the teleprompter, opening himself to the risk of getting a stiff neck. At his age, how can we be so heartless? Why can’t we spare him this pain? I wonder.
I have absolutely no doubt he can carry on reading speeches written in his mother tongue – English – even when addressing a crowd of Odias not knowing a word of English and still get voted to power. As we have seen in the last 17 years, Mann ki Bhasha transcends all artificial barriers of language!