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Op-Ed: Naveen’s leadership qualities are untested

Naveen Patnaik has certainly redefined politics in Odisha. When he entered the scene in April, 1997, he was like a breath of fresh air in the filthy, stinking cesspool that Odisha politics had been reduced to. In the two decades since then, the man who was a complete greenhorn then has metamorphosed into a consummate player of the political game and vanquished the stalwarts from all parties who straddled the scene before him to emerge as the unchallenged leader in the state. The list of political heavyweights put on the mat by Naveen included such seasoned politicians as JB Patnaik, Bijoy Mohapatra, Dillip Ray, Ramakrushna Patnaik, Nalinikanta Mohanty, Prafull Ghadai and now Damodar Rout.

He has perfected the art of winning elections through a mixture of personal charisma, deft management of public perception and sound electoral strategy. Nothing – absolutely nothing – has come in Naveen’s seemingly interminable honeymoon with the people that has already lasted over two decades: not corruption charges, not his refusal to speak Odia, not even the Modi magic that swayed the rest of the country in 2014. Almost inevitably, the question that is unfailingly asked whenever the issue of an ‘alternative’ comes up is; “Is there any leader in any party comparable to him?”

While no one except the incurable Naveen hater can question the wisdom of such an assessment given his unchallenged, unfettered reign for four consecutive terms, the fact remains that his leadership has never really been tested. Among current Indian political leaders who have been around for at least two decades, Naveen Patnaik is the only person who has never known what it is to be in the Opposition. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is another leader who has never been in the Opposition. But the crucial difference between him and Naveen is the fact that the former’s party has been in Opposition for much longer than it has been in power since its formation. Among all political parties in the country, both national and state, the BJD remains the only party that has never warmed the Opposition benches. This is a rare phenomenon in a state where no government completed its full term in office till the late JB Patnaik broke the trend in the 1980s.

When he came into politics and was anointed the head of the newly formed BJD, his only political capital was the fact that he was Biju Patnaik’s son. Exasperated as they were with the corrupt and venal Congress government, the people of Odisha welcomed him with open arms. Since then, Naveen has consolidated his position in state politics to a point where he has become well nigh unbeatable with a combination of political guile, clever manipulation and an ability to surprise rivals.

Leadership however, is much more than excelling in the art of staying on in power. It is tested in adversity, in the ability to resurrect an organization after it has been down in the dumps and inspire followers and supporters to turn the tables on rivals. Nothing illustrates this better than the career graph of his own father who won some and lost quite a few. At one point, he lost all five Assembly seats and a Lok Sabha seat he contested simultaneously. His party Janata Dal was reduced to just 17 seats in the Assembly as JB Patnaik held sway between 1980 and 1989. But he still had it in him to stage a stunning comeback, winning an incredible 123 out of the 147 seats in the Assembly in 1990, a record that has not been equaled even by his infinitely more successful father. For that matter, even JB scores higher than Naveen on this score since he resurrected the Congress, which had been reduced to just 10 seats in 1990, to return to power in 1995 with 80 seats.

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Now imagine the highly unlikely scenario of the BJD losing the next election and ask yourself if Naveen has the same spunk and the ability to inspire his cadres to stage a comeback. When asked this hypothetical question, the stock answer of most people, including his staunch supporters, is; “He will just pack his bags and return to Delhi”. They simply cannot see him playing the role of Opposition leader in the Assembly and bide his time to plan and stage a comeback. When you are the Chief Minister of the state, it is easy. You have everything going for you and everyone, including the media, eating out of your hands. You can do what you want, outsource your work to bureaucrats, read out statements prepared by them and still emerge as Administrator No. 1. An Opposition leader has no such luxuries. He has to go through the hard grind, be in constant touch with cadres and fight all kinds of adversities. And this precisely is what leadership is all about.

For all one knows, Naveen could still prove everyone wrong by becoming an effective Opposition leader in the event of losing power (which looks a distant possibility at the moment) – just as he has proved everyone wrong by becoming the longest serving Chief Minister of Odisha. But the jury will remain out till such a thing happens.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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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