Sandeep Sahu

Discerning readers would have noticed a change in the content of BJD posters and banners in the last few days. Biju Patnaik, the man after whom the party is named, has made a triumphant return after going missing for several months. Instead, it is now the turn of VK Pandian, who had usurped his place for quite some time, to go missing from party posters. Party supremo Naveen Patnaik, of course, retains his place.

On the face of it, the change may appear rather trivial. But it is the most definitive indicator of a change of tack and a bid for course correction on the part of the ruling party. It seems the supremo – and maybe even his Man Friday – has realized that Pandian’s picture on posters is doing more harm than good to his party’s prospects in the coming elections, easily the toughest in Naveen Patnaik’s 27-year long political career. Not only did Pandian’s photo took pride of place in almost all party posters and banners, sometimes even outsizing that of his boss, over the last six months. Biju Patnaik – after whom not only the party itself, but also every major scheme and programmes of the government – had gone conspicuously missing from all publicity materials of the party. There was a clear, unabashed attempt to project the bureaucrat-turned-politician as the most important person in the party after Naveen Patnaik.

So, what led to a sudden turnaround just weeks ahead of the elections? If sources are to be trusted, multiple ground surveys commissioned by the party suggested that the projection of Mr. Pandian as the possible ‘successor’ to Naveen Patnaik is not going down well with the electorate. And that if it continued any further, it may harm the party in the election even more. Thus, the removal of his picture from the campaign material is an exercise in damage control.

But is it too late for course correction? Has the damage been already done? It certainly seems so. At the height of his whirlwind tour through the state on a state helicopter, a senior Congress leader had told this columnist; “We don’t have to do anything. Mr. Pandian is already doing it for us.” It was, of course, an admission of the Congress’ own weaknesses at mounting a challenge to the ruling party on its own. But in hindsight, the Congress leader’s statement does appear to be a very realistic assessment of the emerging political equations.

The real damage might well have been done in the six months or so during which Mr. Pandian hopped across the state on a helicopter and held court all by himself, presumably to listen to the grievances of the people and address them on the spot. With no one else on the stage, he went on announcing schemes and grants for various areas, throwing all official protocol out of the window. Mr. Pandian appeared to be reveling in all the manufactured attention as hired crowds, which comprised a large number of women, cheered him and ministers, local MLAs and leaders sweated it out to make this public engagement ‘successful’.

Nothing damaged the party and its leaders more than a viral video showing two senior leaders of the party – Industry minister Pratap Keshari Deb and organizational secretary and supposed No. 2 in the party Pranab “Bobby” Prakash Das – turning traffic constables to facilitate the smooth passage of Pandian’s convoy during one of the many field visits. Having remained behind the scenes all these years, the latter was so enamoured of the sudden limelight that he did not restrict himself to just ‘collecting grievances’. He was everywhere; now giving sermons and life lessons to school/college students, now releasing a conversation with his boss on Instagram. now reciting a self-written poem (in Odia, mind you!) at a literary festival, now addressing a gathering of corporate honchos in Dubai all by himself – you name it !!

When questions were raised about the vast expenditure incurred by the state on his tour through the state, Naveen Patnaik silenced everyone with an audio message making it clear that the latter was touring the state on his instructions. Later, the Chief Minister said much the same in the state Assembly and even justified the expenditure as a ‘much cheaper’ way to address people’s grievances.

The proverbial ‘last nail in the coffin’ was Pandian’s eagerness to forge an alliance with the BJP. Though it was never spelt out by the party who wanted a highly untenable alliance with the main opposition party and why, the public perception was It was Mr. Pandian who was behind the move in a in a scarcely disguised effort to secure his political future. If the alliance talks failed in the end, it was not for lack of efforts by Mr. Pandian.

To make matters worse for man positioning himself to take over the party – and presumably the government with it – the revelation through an RTI query that no less than 74 policemen are deployed and a small matter of Rs 3 crore a year spent on his security could not have come at a worse time. True, he enjoys cabinet rank in his capacity as the Chairman of 5T and Nabeen Odisha. But that doesn’t justify this elaborate security paraphernalia, when even the real cabinet ministers are entitled to no more than 2-4 cops.

There is no question that Naveen Patnaik still remains the most popular leader in Odisha, streets ahead of any other leader. But in handing over the reins of the party – and even the government – to Pandian, he may well have taken the people’s love for granted and done irreparable damage to the party ahead of the most important election of his illustrious career.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)