Can Naveen Patnaik Mark-II Stem The Rot?

Suddenly, one sees a marked change in everything about Naveen Patnaik: his demeanour, his body language, his working style .. you name it. Gone is the reticence before the media, the haughtiness in his public interactions and the tendency to ensconce himself on a pedestal. In its place, there is now an air of self-assuredness in his dealings with the media, a conscious effort to appear friendly and a willingness to be more approachable for the people and party men alike.

Long used to the Chief Minister arriving on the dot, his bureaucrats were surprised on Monday when their boss kept them waiting for nearly an hour for a scheduled meeting. The reason: the boss overshot the duration of his interaction with the party leaders at the grassroots level elected in the just concluded panchayat elections on the first day of his district-wise review of the BJD’s poll performance. Till now, it had always been the other way round: party leaders kept waiting while Patnaik spent time with his bureaucrats. Wiser after the first day’s experience, the BJD boss extended the time slot for the interaction on Wednesday by a full hour so as to have enough time to listen to the party men and give them a pep talk. Significantly, the venue for the confabulations with party leaders was the BJD state office in Unit-VI that wears an abandoned look for most of the year – and not Naveen Nivas as it used to be earlier.

All this certainly marks a distinct change in his style of functioning and points to a conscious decision to spend more time with his party men instead of letting his minions deal with them on his behalf. With an upbeat BJP, flush with its remarkable upsurge in the zilla parishad elections, constantly breathing down his neck, Naveen appears to have decided that persisting with his old way of letting others run the party on his behalf could be a recipe for disaster. Also in evidence is a conscious effort to dispel his public impression as someone completely dependent on his bureaucrats to run both the party and the government.

The same desire to be seen in control of things has seen the BJD boss becoming more forthcoming in his dealings with the media.  Instead of party spokespersons, he now talks to the media himself – and that too without the help of a written text – answering questions on various issues with aplomb almost on a daily basis. His answers still remain brief, but there is a nonchalance about them now that was conspicuously lacking earlier. His self-assured use of the term ‘wishful thinking’ to describe Union minister Jual Oram’s claim on several BJD MPs and MLAs – both present and former – being in touch with his party had a more convincing air about it than the BJP leader’s statement on Tuesday and must have allayed the apprehensions of BJD workers and leaders who have been wondering if the party is really headed for a split.

Call it the Gita Mehta effect if you like; there has been a remarkable change in his interactions with the public as well. It all started with a selfie session with ecstatic youngsters at a bookshop and was followed by more photo ops with students – first at the OUAT firm and then inside his office. Even old timers can’t remember the last time something like this happened – and that too with this frequency.

So far, so good. But the big question is; will this image makeover be enough to regain lost ground and reposition his party as the preeminent political force in the state standing head and shoulders above others, especially with a resurgent BJP straining every sinew to nibble away at its formidable public support ahead of the next elections?

Two years is a long time in politics and it is hard to foretell which way the political wind would be blowing in 2019. The municipal election scheduled early next year may provide a more definitive answer to the question whether the BJD has really lost public support to the extent that the pundits believe it has. It would also show the extent to which the BJD has been able to stem the rot (about which there is little doubt now). But the one thing that can be said with certainty at this stage is that the new look Naveen Patnaik Mark-II must have reassured his party and caused some discomfort in the ranks of the BJP, which has now firmly established itself as his principal challenger.