In 1997, the death of the veteran Odia politician Bijayananda Patnaik opened the space for his 51-year-old son, Naveen Patnaik, to contest elections for the first time. At the time, political leaders in the state expected Naveen to attract voters who were sympathetic to his father, but did not have greater expectations of the debutant politician. But Naveen has surprised his sceptics—he is presently serving his fourth consecutive term as the chief minister of Odisha.
In a recent political biography titled, Naveen Patnaik, the journalist Ruben Banerjee chronicles Naveen’s life and success in politics. In the following extract, Banerjee recounts a formative moment in Naveen Patnaik’s political career, in which he cemented his position as a leader of the Biju Janata Dal and a chief ministerial candidate, by pre-empting any challenge to his supremacy by the party leader Bijoy Mohapatra. “Naveen’s supporters said it was a masterstroke,”Banerjee writes. “His opponents saidit was Machiavellian.”
Though new to the game, Naveen was already conscious of his image. He knew his biggest draw at that point was his family lineage and his perceived innocence. Unlike the other politicians, he was untainted and unsullied. He wanted to stay clean. He did not want people to know that he was staying at a five-star hotel while seeking to be the leader of a state known for its back-breaking poverty. Nor did he want them to know that he loved to smoke. He wished to be perceived as a “good boy” in all ways, even if it meant being a little deceitful.
His voters responded enthusiastically to what they saw in their virtuous candidate and Naveen again won handsomely. But this Lok Sabha, too, was short-lived and there was another general election the next year, in 1999. Again, he won and continued to be the union minister for steel and mines without any resistance from his ambitious BJD colleagues.
Bijoy Mohapatra, the prime mover behind the formation of the BJD, was least perturbed to see Naveen growing in stature as a politician. A long-time aide of Biju Patnaik, he had been his irrigation minister and number two in the government between 1990 and 1995. He was short and slender, but, colleagues insisted, he had tall ambitions for himself. He was a consummate politician, known for his astuteness. But he was not a people’s man or a mass leader, and his influence was confined mostly to his home district of Kendrapara and the adjoining districts in coastal Odisha. His strength lay in back-room politics. He was an organisation man. Most BJD MLAs were hand-picked by him and owed their loyalty to him.