The ‘Third Floor’ Conundrum

Among the many contributions of Naveen Patnaik to the political lexicon of Odisha is the term ‘Third Floor’. While the term itself is of recent origin, the place it refers to has always been there. It is just that it was known as the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) earlier. No one really knows how the CMO became the ‘Third Floor’, but the sobriquet has gained the kind of currency where even an unlettered man in a village now understands what it means. The vernacular media has coined an appropriate Odia term for it: ‘Trutiya Mahala’.

If memory serves me right, the term ‘Third Floor’ first came to be used during the time the redoubtable Bijay Patnaik was the Principal Secretary to the Chief Minister, a period when all power began to be centralized in the room on the third floor of the state secretariat. But the term really entrenched itself after V Karthikeya PandIan took over as the CM’s secretary. Sometime in the second half of Naveen Patnaik’s third successive term as Chief Minister, it was made out of bounds even for the media, justifying the christening of a room on a particular floor as the whole floor. [Interestingly though, a group of reporters branded ‘Third Floor’ journalists by others reportedly has unhindered access to the place despite the media ban in place!]

The mere mention of ‘Third Floor’ evokes fear and consternation in everyone from ruling party politicians to political opponents and even top bureaucrats. Entry here is either by invitation or by grudging permission, even if you are a cabinet minister. Whether you are invited/permitted or not depends solely on who you are. If you are a lay man, have a grievance to be addressed or someone with an idea to share, you don’t stand a ghost of a chance. But if you are a favour-seeking industrialist or a business tycoon, a meeting can be arranged at the shortest of short notices.

It is the war room where strategies are prepared on how to run the government and the party, how to counter opposition propaganda on an issue or wriggle out of a political crisis (like an adverse court ruling or a ruling party politician caught in a scam), how to nip any rebellion in the ruling party in the bud, how to ‘fix’ a particularly inconvenient media house or person. All feedback from the districts reach here and instructions sent out to the concerned collectors accordingly. The Chief Minister’s written statements that he reads out before the television cameras are prepared and ruling party spokespersons briefed on how to field questions on an issue here. If the grapevine is to be believed, even key appointments – and sackings – in leading media houses of the state are discussed and finalized here. [The Editor and an anchor of a local television channel are believed to have been shown the door by the company under express orders of the Third Floor after the channel crossed the lakshman rekha by discussing the CM’s smoking habit!]

Though everyone who has had to deal with the CMO at some point of time has a story to tell, never before has it been in the news as it is now. With the BJP mounting a concerted attack on the alleged shenanigans of the Third Floor mandarins for its many acts of alleged commission and commission, the spotlight is now set to remain focused firmly on the shadowy world of Naveen Patnaik’s war room for some time to come. Not satisfied with submitting a memorandum to the State Election Commission accusing four officers of the Third Floor with interfering in the conduct of the ongoing panchayat elections, the party has now demanded a judicial investigation into the role of these four officers, besides the ADG, Law & Order, in trying to influence the outcome of the election in the ruling party’s favour. Senior BJP leader Suresh Pujari even demanded a probe into the call, WhatsApp and Telegram records of these officials and a few others, including collectors of some districts.

Needless to say, paying heed to the BJP demand is the last thing the Naveen government is going to do. Nor is it likely that the SEC would act on its complaint naming the four officers. But in focusing attention on the shadowy goings-on inside this repository of all power, the party has done well to lift the veil of secrecy and the cloak of anonymity that the Third Floor has guarded so fiercely and zealously all these years. For, neither secrecy nor concentration of power at one place is good for the health of democracy.