Sandeep Sahu

It has been an abiding mystery for me as a journalist! Why is it that the obdurate refusal of the longest serving and most popular Chief Minister of Odisha to learn the language of the state has never been an issue for anyone? Not for the people, not for the Opposition and certainly not for the media.

Fifteen years ago, I remember doing a story for the BBC, in the run up to the first election after the split between the BJD and BJP,  on why Naveen Patnaik’s stubborn unwillingness to speak Odia has never been an election issue. I was surprised to find that even the Opposition spokespersons, who should have been the first to pounce on an issue presented to them on a platter, did not think it would strike a chord with the people. They were, of course, right. The people of the state just did not care whether their Chief Minister spoke Odia or not. If anything, they gave the distinct impression that they actually enjoy listening to his twisted Odia, frequently making mincemeat of the language, read out from a text written in the Roman script. And the two principal Opposition parties in the state – both of them national parties – were quick to realise this. But I felt somewhat vindicated when the BJP included the ability to speak, read and write Odia as a mandatory condition for someone to become CM in its manifesto released a few days after the story was aired – though I would be the last person to attribute this provision in the BJP manifesto to my story. As everyone knows, the BJP was badly trounced in this first post-split election, drawing a blank in the Lok Sabha elections and getting reduced to an embarrassing six seats in the 147-member Assembly. (It had 32 in the outgoing Assembly). And there the matter has rested for the next 15 years: without the CM ever feeing the need to learn the language or the public – and the Opposition and the media - ever raising a question about it.

I am so glad it has finally become an issue with the BJP constantly harping on the point throughout its high-voltage campaign this election. And though there are no signs as yet that the people at large are finally waking up to the issue, it has certainly got some traction, thanks mainly to the Chief Minister all but foisting of Mr. VK Pandian as his successor. The irony is Mr. Pandian, the designated carrier of the Naveen legacy, speaks fluent Odia without the help of a written text, though with a heavy Tamilian accent (as is only natural).

Even now, 24 years after Naveen Patnaik became Chief Minister, his spin doctors and apologists still peddle the same tired, done-to-death arguments (if they can be called that at all) to defend him. “The work that he has done for the state is more important than the question of whether he speaks Odia or not.” “He may not speak Odia, but he can read the minds and hearts of people” (as the then BJD spokesperson told me during an interview for the story in 2009!). Or simply, “He can understand Odia even if he can’t speak the language (as if the CM is doing a great favour by doing that!). There are those who would reel out a long list of work Naveen has supposedly done for the language: getting Odia the classical status, passing the Official Language Act, setting up an Odia university, holding the first global Odia conference and so on. But none of them answers the basic question; why doesn’t he speak the language?

Notwithstanding its classical status, Odia is not such a difficult language to learn. Even foreigners have learnt the language in three months flat. Civil servants of the central cadre are given just six months to learn elementary (Class VII level) Odia. So, why is it that Naveen can’t speak the language even after 24 uninterrupted years as Chief Minister? He never tires of claiming that the ‘4.5 crore Odias’ are his ‘parivar’. So why does he not learn the language that his enormous ‘parivar’ speaks and understands? The truth is: it is not an inability, but a conscious, cynical decision taken as part of a political strategy. He genuinely believes that the strategy has worked wonders for him and the moment he starts speaking Odia, like you and I do, he would lose his USP. And we, the people of Odisha, have repeatedly proved him right.

The BJP did not conjure up ‘Odia Asmita’ as its main poll plank in this election out of thin air. In fact, it is an irony that a party that believes in the ‘one nation, one language’ maxim has chosen Odia language and culture as its theme song this time. But like Naveen’s strategy of not learning Odia, it is a well-calibrated strategy to fight the seemingly invincible Naveen. Having tried out everything in the last two elections – and failed miserably – the saffron party has resorted to this strategy as a last throw of the dice in the hope that it can pin him down on an issue where he is at his most vulnerable, especially in the backdrop of Mr. Pandian’s emergence as the ‘heir to the throne’.

We shall know whether the strategy has worked or not on June 4. If it doesn’t, Naveen will walk into the sunset with the rather unenviable record as the longest serving Chief Minister of any state who doesn’t speak the language of the land he rules.

(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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