Badrika Nath Mahapatra

The other day, while sipping piping hot tea with some close friends in the heart of Bhubaneswar, the topic of discussion, inevitably, veered toward the politics of our state. The discussion went on and on gradually bordering on being boring. But I was jolted out of my absentmindedness when a friend mispronounced the name of Odisha’s ruling party. He used the term PJD instead of BJD. I doubted my ears and asked him to reiterate. Nonchalantly, he uttered that acronym again and everyone in the room immediately guessed what that stands for-Pandian Janata Dal. 

If there is one person who is discussed more than CM Naveen Patnaik or even PM Narendra Modi among the educated and conscious citizenry of Odisha, he is none other than Mr. V. K Pandian, voluntarily retired IAS, ex-private secretary to the CM and Chairman of 5T (Transformational Initiatives) and the cleverly named ‘Nabin Odisha’, a Government of Odisha’s flagship rural welfare scheme which also aims at promotion, protection, and preservation of the culture and tradition of the state. 

What makes this frail-looking but energetic former babu so powerful, by some accounts more powerful than the CM? One, he has the eyes and ears of Mr. Patnaik and is his most trusted man. Considering his multiple health problems and advancing age, Mr. Patnaik is completely dependent on Mr. Pandian. The latter is the real power behind the throne and according to some, the ‘Super Chief Minister’. Not being proficient in Odia and not being a real politician in his temperament, Naveen Babu doesn’t have a close confidant among the politicians of BJD or the Odia bureaucrats. The failed coup engineered by Late Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, ex-IAS officer and the then mentor of Mr. Patnaik has made the latter wary of Odia babus and ex-babus, as per some.   

To be fair to this 2000 batch IAS officer and husband of fellow IAS batchmate Sujata R. Karthikeyan, Mr. Pandian has earned his place not by intrigue or manipulation. He earned the CM’s trust during his stint as the private secretary to Mr. Patnaik and gradually became his right-hand man. He is directly credited for the 5T initiative of the Odisha Government which has led to the visible transformation of high schools, colleges, etc. As the ailing CM gradually retreats from direct engagement with political functionaries and the general public at large, Mr. Pandian has been crisscrossing the state announcing grants for various developmental works, accepting representations from organizations, and communicating directly with the public.  

With his meteoric rise in Odisha’s power circle, people outside Odisha have started to take notice of Mr. Pandian who enjoys the rank of a cabinet minister.  A few days back, a renowned and veteran Hindi journalist devoted an entire episode to Mr. Pandian in his YouTube channel subscribed by more than half a million subscribers. In his presentation, he shared speculations about Mr. Pandian contesting the next Assembly elections in Odisha and becoming a Minister or even the Deputy CM afterward. Considering the latest developments including his voluntary retirement and appointment as chairman of 5T Initiatives and Nabin Odisha with a cabinet minister’s rank, the speculation may very much become a reality in 2024.

Now bigger questions arise. How has a Tamil Nadu-born bureaucrat become the most powerful man in Odisha? Does our state lack natives having clear-sightedness, fast decision-making ability, and administration management acumen? Isn’t it an affront to the self-respect of about 4.80 Crore Odias?  The answers to these queries are complicated. 

In another state, the opposition parties would have made much hue and cry over such unbridled power being enjoyed by a bureaucrat (now ex-bureaucrat) belonging to another state. It would have been made an issue of self-respect of the concerned state. But not in Odisha. And the reasons are obvious. BJP, the principal opposition party in Odisha, due to its numerical inferiority in Rajya Sabha, often depends upon non-INDIA (the alliance, not our country) parties like BJD to make various bills sail through in the upper house of the parliament. It’s an open secret that though they are political adversaries at the state level, there is a tacit understanding between BJD and BJP at the central level. PM Modi and CM Patnaik admire each other and have a healthy working relationship. The clout that Mr. Patnaik enjoys at the centre is evidenced by the fact that Mr. Pandian’s request for voluntary retirement was approved with lightning speed within a time span of 72 hours. In similar cases of requests for voluntary retirement by IAS officers, sometimes it takes weeks and months to get the required approval. As for Congress, the other major opposition party, the less said the better. The grand old party has been losing ground in the state over the years and a few of its handful of legislators have publicly been thankful to Mr. Pandian for taking up developmental work in their respective constituencies.  

Further, Mr. Patnaik has no qualms about making a non-Odia the most powerful man in the state as he is not known to be very sensitive about the Odia identity and self-respect. This is evidenced by his lack of interest in learning the Odia language in spite of being the CM of the first state founded on a linguistic basis in modern India for no less than 24 years. Lastly, many Odias are perceived to be not consciously proud of their Odia identity to feel too perturbed by the rise of the Tamil ex-bureaucrat. 

Going by the present trend of things, if Mr. Pandian, in whatever capacity, succeeds in positively transforming one of the poorest states of the country, there will be grudging acceptance of his position as the official number two in the state government after the next elections. If that happens, then he, succeeding Naveen Babu as the BJD chief would not be a far-fetched imagination but a reality in the near future.

(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.)