Can Naveen Swim Against the Current?

Just for the heck of it, I posted this poser on my Facebook wall last evening: “Shall we ever see Naveen Patnaik gracing the Opposition benches?” The responses started coming in a torrent and have not stopped even now, numbering 45 at the last count. But what was noteworthy was that not even one of the respondents believed he would assume the Opposition leader’s chair in the Assembly in the unlikely and hypothetical event of his party losing the next election. The consensus view was that he would simply leave Odisha and ‘flee’ to Delhi or find a ‘Palani’ or ‘Panneer’ for the job while he continued to call the shots in the party!

Though not on a public platform, I have posed this question to friends, fellow journalists and others earlier too and the response has always been the same; the day he loses an election, he would shun the party or retire from politics altogether and go back to Delhi where he came from. I have a hunch that the response to this poser would be no different if it is placed before an audience much larger than my list of friends and acquaintances, taking care to include all sections of people in the list of respondents.

This has often got me thinking. Does this near-unanimous view mean that we, the people of Odisha, have reposed our unequivocal trust and kept voting for a person for an unprecedented four successive terms as the Chief Minister knowing full well that he would ‘flee’ the state at the first available opportunity, I have wondered. And this is a man who has always claimed he is not interested in a larger role in national politics because he is ‘happy serving the four crore people of my state’!

If what the people think about Naveen’s post-defeat move is right, then he would go down in history as the first Indian politician who never spent a day in the Opposition. [This will be another ‘feather’ in the cap of a man, who already has the rather unenviable record of being the only Chief Minister in the country who does not speak the language of the state – even after four terms!]

I can understand the logic behind the perception of those who have taken the trouble of sharing their thoughts and views on the issue. After all, Naveen Patnaik is the quintessential aristocrat in politics, standing tall over all others while his minions do the ‘dirty’ job of running the state and the party. He is a rare politician who has fiercely guarded his privacy – so much so that even the Prime Minister of the country had trouble getting through to him in October last year after news broke about the massive fire in SUM hospital that killed 30. Party insiders say he completely switches himself off from the world after 8 PM to retire to his private space inside the fortress-like Naveen Nivas. He must also be among the few Chief Minister who has rarely spent a night outside Bhubaneswar in 17 uninterrupted years at the helm of the state government. Why would a man who cannot sit through the proceedings of the Assembly for five minutes at a stretch and routinely gets his ministers to answer questions asked about his departments, goes the argument, take up the thankless job of an Opposition leader where he would not have the luxury of having someone else leading on his behalf?

But I have a slightly different take on the issue. Even if he himself is keen to chuck it up all and ‘flee’ to Delhi, will he actually be allowed to do so by his party? It is true that Naveen did not come to politics or Odisha of his own volition. But can he now shun both and ‘flee’ to Delhi just like that? Politics is a bit like riding a tiger; there is no getting off even if you want to. Even if he manages to dodge his party leaders and workers after losing the election, the next government (of whichever party or combination of parties it is) would hardly be expected to allow him the luxury of quietly walking into the sunset. If anything, it can be trusted to dust off old files and do everything it can to make life miserable for him.

I started with a poser and will end with a poser. Is a man who only knows how to swim with the current but chickens out at the prospect of having to swim against the current worth persisting with?