The Power Behind The Throne

Everyone talks about him. But for some strange reason, no one names him. Rarely has an officer – and that too one not belonging to the senior echelons of the bureaucracy – enjoyed so much clout. Even more rarely has someone who has so consciously and scrupulously stayed away from public glare been the centre of so much public attention. In keeping with the unwritten rule laid down by unknown people for unknown reasons, ‘Scandeep’ too would refrain from naming him – except to reveal that one is talking about the man frequently referred to as ‘the non-Odia officer’ who has become a virtual synonym for Third Floor which, as everyone knows, is the Chief Minister’s Office in the state secretariat.

Cabinet ministers genuflect before him. Politicians dread him. Those in the ruling party vie with each other to be in his good books. Large sections of the media eat out of his hands. Top bureaucrats way senior to him rarely take any decision without first getting it cleared from him. He takes a call on just about anything and everything – from a politically sensitive police case to an important policy decision. As for his boss, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s dependence on him is total. In short, not a proverbial ‘leaf’ moves in the state without his permission.

After the debacle of sorts the ruling party suffered in the zila parishad elections in February last year, many people had thought his wings would be clipped. Nothing of the sort happened. If anything, his ‘wings’ appear to be flapping even more vigorously than they did earlier.

In terms of the clout he enjoys, many people compare him to the late Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, who too was believed to be running the state as well as the party though his official position was nothing more important than that of a member of the Rajya Sabha – and that too after years of remaining in the shadows. But this columnist is of the view that even at the height of his powers, Pyari Babu never quite enjoyed the kind of power and clout that our all-powerful man in the Third Floor does now.

It goes without saying that this state of affairs does not augur well either for good governance or democracy at large. Extra-constitutional centres of power are always antithetical to the spirit of democracy; more so when they are bureaucrats. Pyari Babu at least had retired as a bureaucrat when he was handling the party on Naveen’s behalf. But a serving officer taking decisions on affairs of the ruling party is by no means a welcome proposition. Besides constituting a serious violation of the service code, it undermines the political leadership too.

But then who cares for constitutional niceties when the arrangement in place is doing just fine? In his 17+ years as the Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik has left no one in doubt that he just doesn’t have the appetite for getting into the nitty-gritty of running either the party or the government. He would rather entrust the job to someone – whether in the party or the government – while he charms his way into the people’s hearts with his smiling visage to laugh all the way to the vote bank. For years after he became Chief Minister, it was Pyari Babu who did the job – and quite efficiently at that. Then, after he fell from grace following the Coup That Wasn’t in March, 2012, Kalpataru Das emerged from nowhere to step into his shoes and continued in that position till his demise in July, 2015. But it has to be said that the five-time MLA from Dharmasala never really enjoyed the kind of clout Pyari Babu once did or the shadowy man on the Third Floor has done since his demise.

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It is remarkable that while the officer is every opposition politician’s favourite punching bag, his boss gets away with blue murder. It is inconceivable that an officer would dare do something that is not expressly sanctioned by his boss. But the barbs are almost always aimed at the officer rather than his boss. It is an arrangement that obviously suits both. While the officer is happy to take all the flak even while enjoying all powers, the boss escapes blame for anything while doing nothing. May be that’s the reason the arrangement has worked so well.

Here is hoping that the veil of secrecy that has allowed this arrangement to continue so long will be lifted and the conspiracy of silence broken some day by those who know the inside story but are too terrified to talk about it at the moment  – except in hush-hush private conversations. But there is little doubt that Naveen Patnaik would leave behind an unhealthy legacy when he finally walks into the sunset.

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