A Consummate Practitioner of Perception Management

Trust Naveen Patnaik to turn the tables on his opponents. In air dashing to Baripada on Thursday at a time when the temperature was hovering around the 45 degrees Celsius mark to personally ‘take stock’ of the progress in the work on the proposed Pandit Raghunath Murmu Medical College, the Chief Minister has sent out a strong political message. And the message is this: while his opponents (read Dharmendra Pradhan) are happy showing phony concern over this highly emotive issue through stage-managed photo-ops in the air-conditioned comfort of Union Health minister JP Nadda’s chamber, it is he (Naveen) who is genuinely concerned about the issue.

For a Chief Minister who has made a virtue of launching a thousand projects with the mere press of a button and reviewing the progress of hundreds of others in the comfort of his secretariat chamber, the easier option would have been to talk to the officials through video conferencing. But canny politician that he is, Naveen has obviously realized that the time for easier options is now well and truly over.

He knows he had to take the trouble of visiting the place physically and overseeing things personally in the scorching heat to win the battle of perception.

Naveen had already won round one of the battle when the Oversight Mandate Committee of the Supreme Court allowed the intake of 100 MBBS students in the college in this academic session. The panel’s decision had put paid to Pradhan’s plans to take credit for getting things going by convincing the Health minister to send an MCI team for the customary second visit before end of May. Though the Naveen Patnaik government had done precious little to expedite things, it was only natural that it cornered all the glory for the victory of sorts because it had written the letter to the Committee that ultimately led to the decision. Pradhan’s attempts to lay the blame on the shoulders of the state government for the delay in grant of MCI permission for admission this year also fell flat on the face in the process. The Chief Minister’s surprise visit to Baripada on Thursday thus was an effort to drive the nail further in.

It would, however, be wrong to see the visit solely as part of the perception battle between Naveen and the man who is reportedly eyeing his chair. It is important to remember that the medical college project is coming up in Mayurbhanj, which had given a resounding thumbs-down to the BJD in the three-tier panchayat elections in February this year. The ruling party had managed to win just five of the 56 zila parisahd seats in the district. Thursday’s visit, therefore, was Naveen’s way of trying to charm his way back into the hearts of the people in Mayurbhanj, who had given him a resounding mandate in the Assembly elections only three years ago.

By all accounts, the mandate against the BJD in the panchayat elections was more a reflection of anger against the local leaders of the party – former minister Sudam Marandi, in particular – than an expression of no-trust on Naveen himself. Having realized this, the BJD supremo was just trying to establish a direct connect with the people of this tribal dominated district over the shoulders of its local leaders. He may have once mispronounced Baripada to make it sound like a popular Odia gaali, but Naveen surely knows ‘how to make friends and influence people’.

This writer, for one, believes this is going to be Naveen’s strategy in the next election in 2019. He would try and drill into the people’s mind that in voting for the BJD, they are essentially voting for him rather than the party’s candidate. He had adopted the same strategy in the last election with spectacular results and is all set to repeat it in the next. Like Narendra Modi, he wants to make it all about himself, making the party redundant in the process