Sandeep Sahu

The big takeaway from Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik"s interview to news agency ANI aired on Wednesday morning is his emphatic declaration that Mr VK Pandian is 'not his successor'. 

Every time the question of succession has come up, Naveen has always stuck to his well thought out standard response: "The people of the state will decide my successor." So, why did he have to come out with an additional and specific clarification about Pandian? One way of looking at it is; "The interviewer asked a specific question. So, it was only natural for him to give a specific answer." But that would be too simplistic an interpretation of an announcement of immense significance. Anyone even remotely familiar with how Naveen conducts his interactions with the media – mostly of the ‘national’ variety – would know that it was not an extempore  response to an off the cuff question asked to the BJD boss. The wily Chief Minister would NEVER sit for an interview without knowing well in advance what he is going to be asked. At least in this case, it is more than possible that he wanted the question asked and was ready with his answer. It is even possible that answering the question was the very purpose of the whole exercise.

Notwithstanding Naveen’s denial, only the naïve would believe that it is the last word on the issue. VK Pandian has not chucked up an enviable career in the civil services, during which he deservedly earned a reputation as a ‘doer’, to remain ‘an ordinary member’ of the BJD all his life. As this columnist sees it, the announcement is a rather belated acknowledgement by the BJD boss that pushing his trusted aide to the forefront of the party apparatus and handing over the entire election campaign to him has caused great damage to his party’s prospects in the first three phases of the election. The announcement on Wednesday is thus an attempt to prevent speculation about Pandian as Naveen’s successor from hurting the party any further.

The timing of the announcement is significant. It came with just two days to go for the all-important fourth phase of polls on Friday. The six Lok Sabha seats – and the 42 Assembly segments coming under it – going to polls on June 1 constitute the region where the BJD has always been at its strongest since its formation. It has been a veritable fortress for the ruling party with the exception of Mayurbhanj where the BJP walked away with six assembly seats, along with the Lok Sabha seat, last time round. But even there, the BJD has achieved a remarkable turnaround since the setback in 2019, as evident in the three-tier panchayat elections in 2022. The BJP, which had won an incredible 49 out of the 56 zilla parishad seats in the district in 2017, drew a blank five years later while the BJD managed to increase its tally from a mere five to 53, the JMM winning the other three. The BJD has had a virtual monopoly in the 35 Assembly segments under the other five Lok Sabha constituencies – Balasore, Bhadrak, Jajpur, Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur – though it lost the Balasore Lok Sabha seat by a small margin last time. Hence, any setback in this phase has the potential to turn the BJD applecart altogether. If reports coming from the ground are anything to go by, cracks have developed at several places in the fortress with even the Congress, hardly a major force in this election, set to make some inroads in some constituencies. The Chief Minister’s ‘Pandian not my successor’ declaration, therefore, is a desperate attempt at damage control.

Even before the election process had started, this writer had written a piece in this space saying Naveen Patnaik had taken the biggest gamble of his unbelievably successful career by effectively handing over the reins of the party – and the government – to his man for all seasons. He obviously had immense faith in himself and his popularity with the people to see the day through for himself and his party. He had taken the people for granted and assumed – erroneously as it turns out – that since the people love him, they would love his chosen successor as well. But he has belatedly realised that is not how things have panned out on the ground. Contrary to his assumption – and that of his trumpeters – the backlash against Pandian is not confined to the ‘urban middle class’ (who, in any case, don’t vote) but has turned out to be a pan-Odisha phenomenon, fuelled considerably by the BJP’s well-calibrated strategy to keep the issue centre stage right through the month-long election campaign. What has added to the groundswell of resentment – even anger – against Pandian is the latter’s ill-advised strategy of keeping all other leaders of the party offstage during campaigning. Unwittingly, he has deepened the impression that Naveen has now sought to dispel: that Pandian is the chosen one. As Tathagat Satapathy remarked very perceptively in a tweet after the CM’s clarification, it came ‘tooooo late’ in the day to retrieve the lost ground.

It is, however, still possible that the BJD, despite all the anti-Pandian backlash, could scrape past the majority mark on the combined strength of Naveen’s popularity with the masses in general and women in particular, the bevy of welfare measures launched by his government and the enviable party organisation on the ground (something that the opposition has always come a cropper against). But unless he walks the talk and demonstrates beyond any shred of doubt that he has no plans of foisting Pandian on the party, the government and the people at large, it would be an extremely shaky government with the suppressed resentment within the party against the bureaucrat turned politicians boiling over at some point. As they say, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.

The last is yet to be heard on the succession battle.

(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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