Badrika Nath Mahapatra

As the dust of months-long election campaigning settles and the first BJP government takes over the reins in Odisha, the most important question that pops into one’s mind is about the legacy of Naveen Patnaik, the ex-Chief Minister of Odisha who rode the political scene of the state like a Colossus for about two and half decades.

Naveen was a larger-than-life figure while he was the CM. His was a carefully built persona-not responsible for wrongs committed by his administration and party but the progenitor of every welfare measure and development initiative taken during his tenure. Now that he is no more at the helm of Odisha’s affairs and his party BJD’s overwhelming presence is a thing of the past, this is the time to dispassionately assess his contributions to Odisha. 

Let’s talk about his intangible contributions first. Even his worst enemies will admit that Naveen is gentlemanliness personified. He carried himself with dignity and never used harsh words against his adversaries. Because of the sophistication and grace that he exuded, he was popular in the national media thus saving Odias from any taunt about their CM while interacting with non-Odias, unlike the Bengalis who have to face embarrassment when non-Bengalis mock the various utterances and pronunciational gaffes of their CM Mamata Banerjee. Further, Naveen had a clean image and no corruption allegation was levelled against him personally. 

Coming to his tangible contributions to Odisha, his topmost achievement was navigating through natural disasters like cyclones which hit Odisha frequently. He knew well that it was the inept handling of the affairs post the super cyclone of 1999 by the then Congress Government that brought the alliance of BJD and BJP to power under his leadership. Odisha under his stewardship earned praise for evacuating citizens to safety during the cyclones of Phailin and Fani which hit the state in 2013 and 2019 respectively. Though poverty levels in Odisha still remain high, the state has gradually come down in the list of states having high multi-dimensional (with equally weighted three dimensions of health, education and standard of living) poverty. As per the document called National Multi-dimensional Poverty Index-A Progress Review 2023 published by Niti Ayog, in the list of states with the percentage of the total population who are multi-dimensionally poor, Odisha stood eighth.

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This is a vast improvement from the situation about 3 decades back when Odisha used to be among the top 1-2 poorest states of India.  Naveen government also promoted the national game of Hockey in a big way hosting the Men’s Hockey World Cup Tournament more than once, thus bringing Odisha to national glare. BJD Government is also credited with launching initiatives like Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana (BSKY) and strengthening Mission Shakti for providing free healthcare to poorer sections of the populace and empowering women from disadvantaged backgrounds, respectively. 

But many were unimpressed by the progress achieved by Odisha under the stewardship of Naveen Patnaik considering the long period of almost a quarter century of BJD rule.  It was felt among broad sections of the citizenry that during his five continuous terms, the state could have achieved much more. For example, very few industries were set up and employment opportunities were created during Naveen’s 24-year rule. Notwithstanding the ridiculously low unemployment rate of about 0.90% in 2023 as reported by the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE), droves of young people leave Odisha every year to do menial jobs in various other states of India.

The reason for the reported low unemployment figure in Odisha is said to be not too many young unemployed Odias staying in the state, having shifted to other states for work. Further, Naveen’s uninterrupted reign of 24 years brought its associated malaises of rampant corruption, goonda raj and general degradation in the area of law and order. Though the capital city of Bhubaneswar saw development, much of the interior regions of the state remained mired in poverty and under-development.

But what actually did the BJD was the factor of perception about the governance model dominated by serving and former bureaucrats. The role of Tamil Nadu-born V. K Pandian, ex-IAS and aide of Naveen who joined the BJD a few months back became the most lethal arrow in the quiver of the main opposition BJP. Considered to be the ‘Super Chief Minister’ of Odisha by friends and foes of BJD, Pandian welded enormous power due to his exclusive access to Mr. Patnaik. With Naveen confined to his residence due to health factors, Pandian became the sole star campaigner for BJD who crisscrossed the state addressing gatherings unaccompanied by any important BJD leader.  

There was credible apprehension in the minds of a vast number of Odias that considering Pandian’s vice-like grip on the ruling party and government not to mention Naveen himself, the former would succeed Mr. Patnaik should BJD return to power. BJP exploited this chink in the armour of the ruling party and made Odia Asmita (identity) the major campaign issue. Naveen’s reluctance to learn Odia despite being the CM for so long also came in handy to BJP to add credibility to the charge that Odia identity is under threat. This poll plank of BJP set the cat among the pigeons and Naveen had to clarify that his successor would be chosen by the people of the state. But by that time, it was already late and a wave had started to build in favour of BJP which unseated Naveen after long 24 years of rule.  

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Considering the not-so-encouraging showings of the BJP in other states, its performance in both Lok Sabha elections (in which it won 20 out of 21 seats in the state) and assembly elections in Odisha was the jewel in the crown of its electoral success. However, the nascent BJP government can eclipse the positive aspects of Naveen’s legacy only by the glow of sustained all-round growth of Odisha coupled with the creation of ample job opportunities.

(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.)

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