Monday, Sep 24, 2018 | Last Update : 09:26 AM IST

Odisha’s shy, chain-smoking CM and his art of survival

THE ASIAN AGE. | RUBEN BANERJEE
Published : Aug 5, 2018, 12:32 am IST
Updated : Aug 5, 2018, 12:32 am IST

When Naveen entered politics in Odisha, he was trying to reach out to the people of his native land whose rusticity he did not share.

Naveen Patnaik by Ruben Banerjee, Juggernaut, Rs 599
 Naveen Patnaik by Ruben Banerjee, Juggernaut, Rs 599

The twin-engine helicopter flew low, skirting over swathes of hills, valleys and fields. Having taken off from Bhubaneswar, the chopper was headed towards Thakurmunda, a speck of a town in the state’s interiors…

A killer cyclone had ploughed through the state in October 1999, leaving 10,000 people dead and destroying everything in its wake…

As the helicopter flew overhead that day in the year 2000, the situation below was the bleakest it had been in living memory, second it would seem only to the 1866 “Na Anka” famine, which had wiped out a third of its population…

In the helicopter, a fifty-something man, of a tall, lean frame, sat silently in the front seat, beside the pilot. But for the routine pleasantries at the start of the journey, few words were spoken. The man, in a starched white kurta-pyjama, occasionally stretched his legs, perhaps silenced by the daunting challenge ahead of him.

Naveen Patnaik had reasons to be in a contemplative mood. He was a rank outsider who had lived most of his adult life outside Odisha, spoke no Odia and was, for good measure, a stranger to its history, culture, traditions, rituals and everything else. Yet he was on the campaign trail, hoping to become the chief minister of a state hit with the worst tragedy in recent times.

Educated at Doon School and a classmate of Sanjay Gandhi’s, he was more at home speaking in English with a Western accent. He loved Dunhill cigarettes and enjoyed his Famous Grouse whisky every evening, a habit that his personal staff says he hasn’t given up. Just until three years ago, Naveen had been a permanent fixture in Delhi’s most exclusive party circuits and rubbed shoulders routinely with the well-heeled and powerful. He had, in his younger days, run a boutique called Psychedelhi from the premises of the Oberoi hotel and his clientele included the fabled Beatles. His circle of friends straddled the globe and his interests included books and films, landing him a small role in Merchant Ivory’s 1988 adventure film The Deceivers, which had Pierce Brosnan and Saeed Jaffrey in the cast…

When Naveen entered politics in Odisha, he was trying to reach out to the people of his native land whose rusticity he did not share. Yet, as the son of Odisha’s legendary politician, he had been anointed by fate and destiny as the desperate state’s only possible saviour. Fed up with the games played by discredited politicians, many Odias welcomed Naveen despite his lack of Odia. They knew little about him other than that he was Biju Babu’s son. But the anonymity of his past meant a freedom from being judged.

Naveen took over as chief minister and came to live in Bhubaneswar permanently. He had shed his jeans and T-shirt for the politicians’ kurta-pyjama long ago, but now, as he began to hold a daily durbar at his home, he switched to wearing the famous lungi from Khordha, the town located not far from Bhubaneswar. As Naveen held court in the morning, sitting at the head of his dining table, only a select group of senior party leaders had access to him. In the early days of his chief ministership, one regular early morning guest was Rajkishore Das, a retired Odia teacher, employed by partymen who thought it would serve the leader well if he quickly learnt the local language. But while Naveen was keen to learn more about the places and people of Odisha from those who visited him, Das was mostly ignored and sat idle, sipping coffee and reading newspapers until he finally stopped coming one day.

The new chief minister, personal staff said, had set habits. He would start the day with a glass of orange juice, a few slices of watermelon or papaya and a cup of coffee. Then he would get busy meeting those who came into his dining room, lighting up one cigarette after another. When he left for the state secretariat around 11 am, he would have a glass of coconut water. He would return home for a very light lunch, mostly khichdi and a bowl of curd or simply bread and soup, and head back to the office. Returning home past dusk, he would settle down for a drink of Famous Grouse whisky after 9 pm, though Article V (B2) of the 37-page BJD party constitution stipulated that “party members should abstain from alcoholic drinks and drugs”. Dinner was the time when Naveen would indulge himself, with his only proper meal of the day. Red hot Thai chicken curry was said to be one of his favourites.

For a one-time party animal, Naveen lived a rather lonely life in Bhubaneswar. He led the entire state, but had few for company at home. There were not too many people in Bhubaneswar the suave, chain-smoking, English-speaking chief minister could relate to and the only two people who dropped in frequently to share a drink with him at home in the initial years were the veteran politician A.U. Singh Deo and the industrialist-turned-politician Baijayant “Jay” Panda. Both had illustrious family backgrounds, were widely connected and spoke smooth, accented English like Naveen. Other guests who made it past the portico and into the living quarters at Naveen Niwas were never made to feel they were unwanted. Yet, from very early in his tenure, Naveen let it be known to everyone that he was for no one, despite his show of warmth and courtesy.

The new chief minister seemed delighted when visitors such as the portly Braja Bhai, the all-powerful general manager of the largest and most powerful Odia daily Samaja, came calling. Lacking any worthwhile formal education, Braja Bhai spoke no English and seemed a bit crass. His visiting card had a photograph of him. Having come to control Samaja, Braja Bhai enjoyed being in the news himself. Every time he left for Delhi, Samaja’s front page would scream “Braja Bhai Gale” (Braja Bhai has left) alongside a photograph of him being given a warm send-off at the airport or railway station by his fawning staff. “Braja Bhai Asile” (Braja Bhai has arrived), the paper would religiously proclaim when he returned.

Braja Bhai loved attention and Naveen showered him with plenty when he visited Naveen Niwas one day. “Braja Bhai is here,” the chief minister informed his officials and colleagues, letting the world know he had an important guest. Perhaps Naveen was trying to flatter Braja Bhai. In those days, Samaja’s influence was unmatched and politicians of all parties competed with one another to keep its bosses in good humour. Many VIPs also made it a habit to visit the paper’s office, along with the mandatory trip to the Jagannath temple in Puri, on important occasions such as taking oath as a minister. Since it made sense to butter up Braja Bhai, he was plied with tea, coffee and snacks at Naveen Niwas. When Braja Bhai left that day, Naveen went up to the portico to see him off. Some months later, the same Braja Bhai lost control of the paper and found himself in jail on charges of misappropriating company funds. He spent months in jail but Naveen didn’t come forward to bail him out. That’s Naveen for you.

Politicians of all hues did their best to impress Naveen. They often went to great lengths to project their apparent closeness to him. One particular politician would come visiting often. When he walked through the gate and the portico, watched by the gathered partymen and favourseekers, he would be ramrod straight. But once inside the drawing room, he would begin to cower and by the time he reached the dining room he would practically be crawling. On his way out, he would gradually straighten up and walk out, full of himself.

Though partymen were still in the process of figuring out Naveen, they had begun to worship him. Soon, they would come to fear him. An abrupt downturn in the political fortunes of two senior BJD leaders, people who could perhaps some day have emerged as potential rivals to Naveen, helped spread the fear. The killer instinct that was on display when Naveen cut Bijoy Mohapatra to size came to the fore again soon after he became chief minister…

The first casualty was Dilip Ray, the union minister in whose house Biju Patnaik breathed his last and who managed Naveen’s first parliamentary election. A businessman-politician, Ray was a senior leader with stature, resources and contacts. He was one of Odisha’s richest politicians, with declared assets of more than `100 crore. Above all, many of Biju Patnaik’s followers were grateful to him for having stood by their leader during his final days, when many other leaders had abandoned him. Given his financial muscle and the emotional connect he enjoyed with partymen, Ray could some day have emerged as a parallel power centre within the BJD. But in May 2000, Naveen asked Prime Minister Vajpayee to induct into his ministry two junior leaders from the BJD. Ray figured that his days were numbered — after all alliance partners are given a fixed number of ministerial offices — and resigned from the union cabinet… The other prominent leader to fall by the wayside as the new chief minister stamped his authority was Nalinikanta Mohanty, BJD’s working president and second only to Naveen in the party hierarchy. In July 2001 when Mohanty, Naveen’s works, housing and urban development minister, was watching television at his secretariat office in the evening, preparing to go home, local television channels broke the story of a brief communiqué issued by the office of the chief minister, just one floor above in the same building. Quoting from the communiqué, the channels said the chief minister had just written to the governor to sack three of his senior ministers from the cabinet. Mohanty was one of them, the other two being Kamala Das and Prashanta Nanda. In the statement and in television interviews that he subsequently gave that night, Naveen said the three had come under a “shadow of corruption” and he was forced to act. He refused to explain further and retreated into his official chambers… Mohanty, too, was shocked by the suddenness of what had struck him. After a while, he tried climbing up the stairs to the chief minister’s secretariat for an explanation. But by then, security on the third floor of the building had been tightened. There were more policemen than usual and not even a fly was being let in. Mohanty left his office shaken. He never returned…

Naveen went on to burnish his anti-graft, no-nonsense reputation further when he sent home half a dozen powerful officers of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS). In a sudden move, he stripped the bureaucrats, viewed as dishonest and inefficient, of their powers. “You are no more required,” Naveen told the IAS officers, even withdrawing their official cars. “You’ve got no work, so no car is required.” Odisha had never seen anything of this kind and Naveen’s stock with the public skyrocketed. The move served twin purposes — the chief minister’s popularity grew and the bureaucracy, which could be recalcitrant, fell in line.

If Naveen wins the Assembly elections in 2019, he will have an opportunity to better the record of the legendary Jyoti Basu, West Bengal’s chief minister who ruled the state for twenty-three years between 1977 and 2000. If the BJD wins the next elections and if Naveen completes his term, he would be at the helm of Odisha for twenty-four years. Time will tell if Naveen gets to do that…

Naveen wins big because he is primarily a minimalist,” said a top bureaucrat who had in the past been a close associate of the chief minister… He uprooted himself from his cocktail circuit and came to live in Bhubaneswar, without family or friends. In the initial years, he had two acquaintances to share a drink with at Naveen Niwas — A.U. Singh Deo and Jay Panda. But despite being the most powerful person in the state, his social circle has only shrunk. Today Naveen determines the destiny of 4.5 crore Odias, but he drinks whisky alone at home, having fallen out with both Singh Deo and Panda…

Aides say the chief minister’s minimal personal needs have resonated with the voters and sustained his honest image. “Apart from cigarettes, his daily quota of drinks and maybe the power that comes along with the position of chief minister, there is nothing else that possibly attracts him,” said one of them. He dresses simply, eats sparingly, smokes heavily and drinks leisurely…

That Naveen displays no soft corner or attachment for anyone is his biggest political asset. A top bureaucrat, who served in the chief minister’s secretariat and on whom Naveen depended heavily, has an interesting story to tell. The official’s stint at the chief minister’s office had come to an end and he was moving to another important assignment. The bureaucrat went to say goodbye to Naveen, but in going in and coming out of the chief minister’s room, he took barely thirty seconds. Though known for courtesy and etiquette, Naveen refused to engage in any conversation. The officer was already a thing of the past in Naveen’s mind and so he felt no attachment to him any more. This trait of his explains his ability to sacrifice party colleagues and close associates so often. Given that he always shows people the door on the pretext of achieving something noble, he never attracts public disapproval. On the contrary, he is applauded for being decisive. And with every such “decisive” action, Naveen’s own image as a no-nonsense chief minister has grown.

Tags: book review, naveen patnaik