By Sandeep Sahu
What can one possibly say about J Jayalalithaa that has not already been said? Precious little, I guess, especially if you are based far away from Tamil Nadu. But since the entire nation appears to be having not enough of Puratchi Thalaivi even two days after her death, writing on anything else would perhaps be an injustice to her.
While a lot has indeed been written and said about Jaya even in our state in the last two days, there is one aspect that has not quite received the kind of attention that it deserves: the significant ways in which Jaya’s political philosophy has influenced politics in our own state, especially after Naveen Patnaik took over as Chief Minister. There are broadly four areas where the influence is particularly discernible.
At the core of the Jaya brand of politics was a careful nurturing of a personality cult, something that her ‘brother’ Naveen has built brick by brick over the years. Like Jaya, Naveen too is a larger than life figure who towers over both the party and the government, all others reduced to a bunch of servile courtiers. As someone commented very aptly in the run-up to the last general elections, it was Naveen Patnaik who was contesting all 147 Assembly seats and the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies, candidates be damned. At many places, lay voters did not even know the names of the candidates in fray. All that mattered for them was Naveen and the ‘conch’ that symbolized him. Though personality cult is not exactly unheard of in other regional – and even some ‘national’ – parties, Jaya took it to another level and Naveen has followed her faithfully. Like his ‘sister’, Naveen too has kept his succession plans, if any, a closely guarded secret. Perhaps chastened by the ‘Coup That Wasn’t’ allegedly masterminded by his erstwhile mentor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the BJD supremo has clearly decided that like Jaya, he too doesn’t really need a second-in-command.
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The second Jaya trait that Naveen has imbibed is the assiduous cultivation of the image of the ‘benevolent’ king/queen, the ‘mai-baaap sarkar’ bestowing goodies on his/her poor subjects. Jaya used to frown on the term ‘freebies’ while Naveen is absolutely unapologetic about it. From Rs 1 rice to Aahar to laptops, the inspiration for many of the social welfare schemes launched by the Naveen Patnaik government is the pioneering schemes launched by Jaya in Tamil Nadu earlier. Naveen has merely replicated an electoral strategy tried, tested and perfected by his ‘sister’ in the political laboratory of Tamil Nadu. From Jaya, he has also learnt that branding is the key to this strategy working at the ground level. That’s why all major schemes in Odisha, like their counterparts in Tamil Nadu, are named after a cult figure – ‘Amma’ in case of Jaya and Biju in case of Naveen – that can connect the masses to the party. He has also realized that for the ‘developmental programmes and social welfare schemes’ – as he likes to call what others call ‘freebies’ – to pay repeated electoral dividends, the branding has to remain consistent.
The third lesson that Naveen has learnt from his mentor of sorts is to operate through a bunch of trusted bureaucrats rendering political leaders, including ministers and party MLAs, irrelevant. The contempt with which Naveen holds his cabinet colleagues is evident from the fact that they often do not even know the agenda before attending a cabinet meeting and are merely expected to sign on the dotted line once inside. No wonder trusted bureaucrats are increasingly playing a political role as the politicians stay strictly on the fringes. The line between the party and the government has never been more blurred than it has been during Naveen’s reign. [Jaya would certainly have approved !]
The fourth lesson from the Jaya book of politics that Naveen has mastered is the tendency to fence himself in, live in a cocoon, draw an impenetrable iron curtain around his personal space and remain inaccessible even while establishing a direct and durable connect with the masses in myriad ways: giant hoardings and cut-outs, brief appearances on television, personal appearances at various places in the state to inaugurate various ‘developmental programmes and social welfare schemes’ and, at times, merely by waiving his hand at the crowd.
It is, of course, true that life has been much easier for Naveen than it was for Jayalalithaa because of the absence of any credible opposition in our state. But there is no denying the fact that recipe perfected by the ‘sister’ has stood the ‘brother’ in very good stead indeed!