Op-Ed: Naveen and His ‘Fifth Symphony’

By Sandeep Sahu

There are two kinds of Odias. The first, clearly in a majority, think he is the best thing that has happened to Odisha since independence. That he is the ‘outsider’ who has made Odisha his home and has done what none of the ‘insiders’ who preceded him could; he is honest to the core and has nothing but the interest of the ‘4.5 crore Odias’ in his mind, heart and soul. In short, he is beyond reproach and can do no wrong. [A senior journalist friend, perhaps a little too excited at the stunning victory that the BJD has just recorded, even suggested in a signed article that the results of the Lok Sabha elections would have been entirely different and Modi would have bitten the dust had Naveen Patnaik been projected as the Prime Ministerial face of the combined Opposition!]

The other, minority view sees him as a cynical, ruthless and vengeful politician who has made winning elections into a fine art through political skullduggery and use of money and official machinery. It paints him as a person who has institutionalized corruption at every level, presided over the lumpenisation of politics, jettisoned everything that his late father Biju Patnaik stood for even as he continued to rule in his name and has nothing but utter disdain for everything Odia.

The truth, as always, perhaps lies between these two mutually exclusive views. Let us, for a moment, assume that all the charges that his detractors have been making about how he won this particular election – that he simply spent his way back into power, converting Odisha into a state of ‘beggars’ beholden to the government for everything in his cynical search for votes; made the entire official machinery, including the police, into an extension of the party; entered into selective deal making with the two major opposition parties; had the almost the entire media eating out of his hands and so on – were true. But all of it still doesn’t explain the scale of the victory, especially in the Assembly elections, his major concern. That his party actually managed to increase its vote share over 2014, even if marginally, is a stupendous achievement by any standards for a government that was seeking a mandate for a fifth consecutive term. It helped the party keep unblemished its unique record of adding to its vote share in every election since 2000 and made mincemeat of the anti-incumbency that the Opposition and Naveen’s detractors were banking on. Just like the desperate efforts of some shell-shocked intellectuals to discredit the massive mandate that Modi has just received as ‘murder of democracy’, any attempt to attribute Naveen’s victory against all odds will be dismissed as an expression of frustration. It would be mean not to doff your hat to the man of the moment, who has just pulled off an incredible victory against heavy odds.

But that does not make Naveen the saint that many of his supporters hail him as. And it’s not meant to be an indictment. After all, what business do saints have in politics? Indian politics in the present era is a cynical, ruthless and cut-throat game where only those who are willing to play by the rules and excel in them can survive and prosper. Elections, as everyone knows by now, are not fought or won on thin air. Money does play a role, as do muscle power, misuse of officialdom and the media. And Naveen can’t be faulted for having put all of these to good use in winning elections. [It must be said though that he has had the advantage of being in a better position than his rivals to use these important resources because he has never been in Opposition. But he can’t be blamed for that]
While his election winning ways can be condoned, what his emphatic win cannot whitewash is the record of his government as one of the most corrupt – if not the most corrupt – ever. The Great Mining Scam, easily the biggest corruption scandal in the history of the state, began and continued for nearly a decade under his direct watch. The chit fund scam is another scam where the active connivance of the government and ruling party politicians is public knowledge. You can forestall all inquiry through political deal-making. But the facts speak for themselves – even if they don’t matter for the vast majority of people, as the election results show. In fact, that these are not issues for the electorate, despite the fact at least a million families were ruined by the chit fund scam alone, is a tribute to the perception management skills of Naveen Patnaik!

There are certain traits that both his admirers and detractors recognize in Naveen but have entirely different views on: the streak of ruthlessness in him, for example. Many people are uneasy with his penchant for below-the-belt attacks against his real or imagined rivals – the most cited case in point, Bijoy Mohapatra). But his supporters hail him precisely for this ruthless streak. They see him as the Knight in Shining Armour who vanquishes his rivals in one fell sweep and are perfectly okay with his methods. For them, all is fair not just in love and war, but also in politics.

Many people, including this columnist, have a serious issue with Naveen’s refusal to speak Odia even after being CM for two decades. They cite it as proof that he cares two hoots for the language or the people who speak it. It is, they say, as if he is taunting the Odia race, saying; “I will not learn Odia. And you Odia fools will still keep voting for me.” But the vast majority of Odias obviously do not think that way or have an issue with it. They are convinced that he is more Odia than most Odia-speaking Odias! How he managed to persuade the people to believe so will always remain a mystery. But if the vast majority of Odias, who have just spoken loud and clear, are happy, who are we to complain?

I have been among the fortunate few who have watched Naveen Patnaik since the day he day set foot in Odisha with the body his father on a hot April afternoon. Over the next 22 years and more, I have seen him metamorphose from a shy, reluctant, reclusive and well-meaning politician into a cynical, ruthless, all-conquering leader. But I must confess I am still trying to figure out the phenomenon that Naveen Patnaik is. Maybe we are all too close to the unfolding events and too involved in the process to make a clear, objective and dispassionate assessment of his contribution to the state and his place in the history of the state.

All that can wait. For the moment, it’s time to take a bow to the man who has never lost an election since he stepped into politics; to listen to the sweet melody of his Fifth Symphony!

(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.)