Customers at a popular bookshop in Bhubaneswar had a pleasant surprise recently when the chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, arrived there in the company of his elder sister, the well-known writer Gita Mehta, to buy some books. The elaborate security entourage that has become such an integral part of Patnaik’s persona was conspicuous by its absence. It was perhaps this that encouraged an excited young girl to approach the chief minister for a “selfie.” She was thrilled when Patnaik obliged with a smile—he then went on to pose with several others, who happened to be at the bookshop at the time.
Even as people wondered whether the presence of Patnaik’s sister had anything to do with his sudden and unexpected act of magnanimity, there came another occasion when the chief minister, on a visit to a research farm of a local agriculture university, happily posed for photographs with the students and chatted with them, overshooting his stay by nearly half an hour. A few days later, he invited a group of girls from a local government college into his office chamber to discuss the issue of their photos being uploaded onto Facebook without their consent. It was a style of interaction that would have been unthinkable for the chief minister till a few weeks ago.
Patnaik’s recent public outreach efforts show a clear pattern. There are unmistakable signs that the man who arrived on the political scene two decades ago and has ruled Odisha for 17 uninterrupted and unchallenged years has now decided to attempt to shed his aloof image. It is clear that Patnaik senses an imminent threat to his rule from the Bharatiya Janata Party, which, after scoring significant victories in several state elections, seeks to conquer Odisha in 2019.