Prasanna Mishra

Rise of V K Pandian in Odisha’s political scene has been an exceptional story. While some view himnourished and nurtured with care by no less than a towering personality as Naveen Patnaik, some see him grow and flourish through blatant misuse of state’s resources. For critics, this has been a saga of skulduggery perpetrated by persons whose duty was to protect and preserve constitutional niceties. The example would have few parallels in the country.

For some years, he was seen sitting next to the Chief Minister whenever the Chief Minister was to read out an announcement important enough to be telecast. Only he was with him when important events were happening; like, watching an important hockey match, having a private lunch with important political personalities, or when news about the Rourkela Hockey Stadium finding a place in the Guinness Book of Records was announced. The idea was to market his face throughout the state as the sole confidant of the Chief Minister. For some years he visited places and institutions to market the enigma called 5T and was the focal point among officials who danced to his tune. Even officers senior to him followed him. The arrangement looked farcical but a compliant media reported the exercise as an exceptional tool to expedite state’s development programmes. He was projected as the only doer in the bureaucracy.

The strategy to boost his image was further refined and made more brazen and reckless. He was now flying throughout the state at state expenses to collect grievances from the public. Government’s age-old financial discipline was thrown to winds, crores of rupees were spent, Ministers and political persons, government employees were on duty to see that the minute to minute programme of this official was conducted without a hitch. Elaborate arrangements were made at the meeting places with great pomp and grandeur where he alone occupied the large stage and a carefully chosen audience listened. Open violations of the IAS Conduct Rules continued.

The Central Government never asked questions. He had become a phenomenon, pampered by state largesse. A Colossus had arrived. Protests from the ruling party were non-existent. Those who raised their voices were hastily disciplined. A few complaints were made to the Central Government, but the Centre adopted a routine approach and advised the state government to look into the issue. It was clear that the Chief Minister who also was the leader of the Regional Party was promoting a serving officer of the IAS for years at state expenses to don a political role—an unprecedented course of action that is conceivable only in a totalitarian regime. The vibrancy of a democratic political system had been trampled over, fear was pervasive, favouritism flourished.

Time for Elections scheduled in 2024 was fast approaching and both the BJP and BJD too got busy evolving strategy like other Parties. That BJD was in fact not following the frequently announced equi-distant policy was clear as daylight. It had in fact become a reliable ally of the BJP and the close friendship needed further cementing. The increasing clout of Pandian was no secret to the other political parties including the BJP. His application seeking voluntary retirement from the IAS requesting for waiving the prescribed notice period was agreed to by the central government within three days.

The alacrity was surprising but was understandable. His formal leadership role both in the Party and in the Government can only be announced and enforced by the aging Chief Minister. It may not be possible after he is out of the scene. This explains the hurried Dasshara gift of the Central Government run by the BJP agreeing to Pandian’s voluntary retirement. That also explains why the top state BJP leaders are silent and reticent about voluntary retirement. Central leadership of the BJP, seems to find in Pandian a safe and effective ally during and after the Election.

Immediately after Pandian retired he was appointed by the Chief Minister as Chairman of 5T and Naveen Odisha and was given the status of a Cabinet Minister. He would work directly under the Chief Minister. In status he is now much higher than the Bureaucrats and even a notch above Ministers. He would now be flying and canvassing for the Party without raising dust. The deck therefore is clear for still higher responsibility for him.

His eminent position would surely impact the functioning of the Party. As days pass, BJD would most likely experience headwinds and suffer an existential crisis. Smouldering dissent within the Party, now under control by the aging leader, is bound to erupt, sooner than later and possibility of a split cannot be ruled out. In such a fluid situation it looks more plausible that BJP could become a major partner in a future government in the state. The other possibility—though less likely– could be the emergence of a new political force with a breakaway group from the BJD that may be successful in the coming Election.

The present situation is the unavoidable outcome of inept functioning of the BJD leadership over twenty-three years of rule. The Party failed to function as a democratic institution. It was ruthlessly run by one man, it was advised by non-political and immature persons. The Party leadership was consistently distrustful about the ability of the children of the soil; it preferred to clone a bureaucrat, born in Tamil Nadu, who was dear to the Chief Minister to be a political leader. It was an unconventional approach, an avoidable operation. It hurt the self-image of local leaders.

Emergence of Pandian to still greater heights will therefore surely throw up major challenges for the regional Party. Immediately however there is a very strong possibility that the leadership of both the Party and the Government would pass on to Pandian through voluntary relinquishment by Naveen Patnaik.

(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.)