Induction of VK Pandian, a Tamilian by birth and a former member of the IAS of Odisha cadre to the Biju Janata Dal, the regional party formed primarily to uphold Odia dignity and expedite holistic development of the resource-rich state, was widely expected after his voluntary retirement. The way official formalities of retirement were completed within hours sent a clear signal that both the centre and the state were anxious to make it happen. He has been operating mostly from the Naveen Niwas for quite some time while acting as the Chief Minister’s Private Secretary. His writ ran in government despite him being a junior officer. Critical comments from an important leader of the ruling party on the government’s style of functioning that accorded more importance to the officer were not taken kindly and he was promptly expelled from the party. This only indicated that the officer was indeed a very high-value asset of the party. Many therefore viewed Pandian’s induction to the party as a mere formality—a shift from de facto to de jure status.
Immediately after quitting the IAS, Pandian was elevated to the status of cabinet minister and had his formal entry to the government as Chairman 5T (Transformational Initiatives) and Nabin Odisha. The election symbol of the ruling party is now being increasingly used in official advertisements along with the state emblem. The recent government advertisement about Ama Bank celebrating the launch of the CSP Plus arrangement in unbanked Grama Panchayats not only places the Sankha – the election symbol of the BJD—at a prominent place, but it also mentions the names of PSU Banks who are the partner banks. It seems the owner of these banks—The government of India—has no issue with the display of the BJD’s election symbol. A new normal is now in place. The ruling party, it seems is close to subsuming the government supposed to be apolitical in its functioning.
Media including social media have by and large supported the new leader; people from different segments of the society keep felicitating the leader. The picture published in the media of the executive head of the state’s lead bank felicitating Shri Pandian tells an interesting story. There are efforts to convince people that Pandian is not the only civil servant to quit a career in the prestigious IAS, and join politics. It is also argued that many non-Odias too have made their way to politics in Odisha and therefore this case shouldn’t be troubling others. Critics however are not convinced. Why this case is one of its kind as suggested by them needs some discussion. Non-Odia public men in Odisha, by and large, have been progenies of families living in the state for generations, wherever this has not been the case, the person concerned has never been ushered into the core area of a regional party.
There is a case of a Keralite ICS officer, Kandangalathil Karunakaran Nair, who had served in Uttar Pradesh and was District Magistrate, Faizabad, who had resigned from the ICS following difference of opinion with the state and central government over his handling of the Babri Masjid issue. He joined Jan Sangh and was elected as a Member of Lok Sabha from Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh in 1962. He was not into the core area of the party but was greatly popular around Faizabad.
Odisha's case is different. VK Pandian in the BJD is not to be a nominal member. The general perception is he will actually run it. There is widespread speculation that he would be appointed working President. With the Election a few months away, he would have a decisive role in the selection of candidates both for the Assembly and Lok Sabha. People by and large feel that there prevails a deep understanding between the leadership of both BJP and BJD. He would therefore fine-tune the party’s strategy with the BJP. He would play a decisive role in identifying seats where there would be a friendly contest with the BJP and where there would be real contest. The way both parties had agreed on the candidature of Aswini Vaishnav for the Rajya Sabha seat could be followed this time for the next Lok Sabha and Assembly elections.
Those who think Naveen Patnaik finally has chosen his successor are, therefore, not off the mark. That explains why Pandian’s formal entry to the Party has created the present buzz, and why there is so much of discussion everywhere. That is the reason why many today feel aggrieved that a non-Odia is being pushed to be the face of Odias and no Odia has been chosen. This issue too merits an analysis. We need to think about how Pandian is a non-Odia and Naveen Patnaik is not. Objectively speaking, Pandian speaks Odia more easily and fluently and I am sure is equally proficient in writing in Odia as well. He mixes more freely with people of all sections of the society. Naveen Patnaik is way behind him on both these parameters.
The factors which had influenced a few Odia “wise men” to select almost an apolitical and to a great extent unknown (to Odisha voters) Naveen Patnaik to head the regional party must have influenced the wise men now to select Pandian to be the captain of the regional party. His place of birth, I feel is not relevant. The consideration that could have tilted the balance in his favour is most probably the selectors’ conviction that he is best equipped to hold the party together while anyone else in the position would lead to squabbles and undermine cohesion. As things stand today, it is very likely that he would be able to manage the party and enjoy the wholehearted support and cooperation of the rank and file of the party.
The real test of Pandian would be whether voters would accept him. This would depend on how other parties would be able to project the issue to the voters. The manner in which a huge amount of public money was spent, unfortunately, and recklessly, by the Naveen Government in projecting a serving junior level officer to the public by enabling him to use helicopters to travel throughout the state, by ensuring for him a VVIP style bandobast with massive flawless and lavish arrangements at meeting places may be made out as a case of favouritism and rampant misuse of public money. Political forces may carry the story to the people and highlight the rampant corruption sweeping the state. Years ago, Biju Janata Dal had played the corruption card against the Congress government and had emerged winner. The ill-gotten wealth they talked about then is now perhaps unearthed by the vigilance organisation by raiding even a small official of the present government. Even if the political forces play the corruption card, it is doubtful if the voters pampered for years with freebies will find it even relevant and make them vote for a change.
(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.)