Op-Ed: Learning from the great rival

There are many reasons why Naveen Patnaik remains head and shoulders over all other politicians in Odisha, faces little threat of anti-incumbency as he braces for his fifth successive term as Chief Minister and has no challenger in sight in the horizon. The most important of these reasons, however, is his ability to constantly reinvent himself as per the demands of the time and electoral politics.

It is this ability to adapt that has seen him staying in bed in perfect conjugal bliss with the ‘communal’ BJP for long nine years and then suddenly claim that ‘every bone’ in his body is ‘secular’ after severing ties with the saffron party. The same attribute made him shed his reluctance to allow the common man anywhere near him and go out of his way to oblige people, especially the young, with selfies inside a book store or a running bus after the wake-up call sounded by the results of the zila parishad elections last year. And it is the same streak that has led him to take several leaves out of the book of his biggest political rival: Prime Minister Narendra Modi! [There are no real rivals in the state BJP.]

This columnist spotted this attribute in the canny politician a little over a year ago while leafing through some photographs of a function at the KISS school where the Chief Minister had addressed about 20, 000 students of the school for tribal children . Some of the pictures in the lot had an all too familiar look: about 20, 000 tribal children wearing Naveen masks! It inevitably reminded me of the scenes during Modi’s campaign during the 2014 general elections:! [Of course, I was under ‘instructions’ not to use any of these pictures with the story by those who called the shots in the portal that I worked for at the time for reasons that readers are free to speculate about.]

The ‘mask’ is just one of the many things that he imbibed from the master manipulator of public perception. The second is the extensive use of social media as a tool for personal promotion, image building and perception management. The third is thinking out of box – as reflected in the first of its kind decision of the state government to sponsor the Indian hockey team and his painstaking effort to sell the state as the ‘sports hub’ of the country.

And the latest is the recourse to grand spectacles as a tool to hide the multiple failures of his 18-year rule – the two back-to-back mega events of Make in Odisha and the ongoing Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar being only the latest in a series of such events. [One never got the slightest hint that Naveen’s ‘heart beat’ so vigorously for hockey till about two years back!} Modi showed the way with the glitzy Madison Avenue ‘event’ in the first year of his Prime Ministership to the Sardar Patel statue last month to hide his failures in delivering on his promise of ‘development’ and jobs made in the run up to the 2014 elections. And Naveen has followed in his footsteps by organizing one event after another to divert public attention away from the sorry state of education and healthcare, lack of jobs and the pathetic plight of farmers, hundreds of whom have committed suicide over the last few years.

Taking yet another leaf out of his rival’s book, the Supremo has now embarked on a carefully calibrated, two-pronged strategy to get the media to do his bidding: first, the clever use of the carrot of government advertisement to win over media houses and second, wielding the stick of state power to browbeat anyone who refuses to be won over by the dole into submission. It has got to a stage where he is in no mood to put up with even mildest criticism of himself, his government or his party. And certainly not when such criticism is directed at his showpiece event – the Hockey World Cup – where he has taken centre stage from start to finish. [At the spectacular inaugural ceremony to the marquee event, there was no place for any of the nine Olympians from Odisha on the dais, including the great Dillip Tirkey – to make sure they don’t steal the limelight from the centre of all attraction!]

Naveen, however, is finding one stumbling block in his bid to get the entire media to sing paeans to him: the limitless universe of social media where the writ of his government, unfortunately for him, does not run. But he has found a solution to this seemingly insurmountable problem too in true Modi style; let loose his fully paid trolls and those who leave on his dole, both official and unofficial, on those who question any critical questions on the social media. The vast army of the King’s cyber warriors has been particularly bloodthirsty since the Hockey World Cup started.

Logic is at a premium in the way they go about their job, though. If you raise questions about certain aspects of the big tournament, they would promptly accuse you of lacking in ‘Odia pride’: a ‘traitor’ in short. But when you ask why that same ‘Odia pride’ goes on a long vacation (till after the Cup, I guess) when not one player from Odisha makes it the stage as the events got off to that spectacular start last Tuesday, the goalposts are immediately shifted. The new argument: “Don’t forget that it’s the World Cup, no less” (blissfully unmindful of the fact our very own Dillip Tirkey, who is a BJD member to boot, has played three of them!!

Once these overground warriors realize they can’t win the argument, they leave the field wide open for the trolls to come in and call the naysayers names, attribute political or monetary motives and question their integrity – a strategy already perfected by Modi. These trolls (and I am using the term with full responsibility) would try all they can to get under your skin and get you to say something that you might have to regret later. If they fail, they would let loose an incessant trail of the choicest invectives. [This author too has had more than his share of such ‘compliments’ over the last few days for his temerity to question certain aspects of the Cup!] The ‘resignation’ of my good friend Debendra Prusty as the head of the news desk at ‘Nitidin’ – not for anything he wrote or did not write in the newspaper but for what he posted by way of comment on the Cup on Facebook – is only the latest example of the arm-twisting tactic that his government has adopted to ensure any dissenting voice even on social media is completely silenced.

As someone who has written consistently against the Naveen government over the last several years, I can vouch for the fact that I have never seen it so intolerant of criticism and so vengeful in its efforts to silence it.

May be – just may be – it’s another trait he has imbibed from his Great Rival !

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)