The helicopter landed in one of the most desolate and poorest parts of Orissa’s Puri constituency in the usual swirl of blinding dust that heralds the arrival of top politicians on India’s general election trail. But that did nothing to deter the enthusiastic welcome of the crowds gathered to see their chief minister at Rulango in Dalang on Monday evening—and the man who alighted from the aircraft had none of the arrogant power-strutting swagger of many Indian politicians.
Instead, Naveen Patnaik, the 62-year-old chief minister of Orissa, emerged as a slightly stooping man with a friendly smile but stern eyes, who carefully kept those around him at a distance, but did so shyly, without causing offence. His smile was genuine as he went to the platform and read out the first part of his speech in the local Oriya language, which he cannot speak easily, and then, apologizing, turned to his more comfortable Hindi. His manner was that of a kindly headmaster addressing an end-of-term pupils’ meeting as he spelt out his government’s successes, rarely raising his voice but receiving cheers at all the right moments.
“Nice to see you again,” he said to me as he walked away from the platform. I asked what his main issues were. “He’ll tell you,” he replied, waving at Pinaki Mishra, the local parliamentary candidate. I reckoned that was one of the longest interviews Patnaik has given to a foreign correspondent. He is famous for saying little and rarely meeting journalists—indeed, rarely meeting anyone outside his small inner political circle. Almost a recluse in Bhubaneswar, he socializes little and reportedly even vets guest lists when he spends evenings with his two closest political friends and allies, member of Parliament Jay Panda and Orissa minister A.U. Singh Deo.
Once a friend of Jacqueline Onassis and Mick Jagger, Patnaik unexpectedly abandoned a grand and exclusive international jet-setting lifestyle for Orissa politics after the death 12 years ago of his father, Biju Patnaik, a popular politician and former chief minister. Known to his friends as Pappu, he did not seem to have the grit to remain in politics for long. Yet, he now looks likely to break records by winning a third successive term as Orissa’s chief minister, having managed to carve out an image that appeals to the electorate, even though the state has sunk while he has been in power to become India’s poorest, with 39.9% of the people below the poverty line. That is worse, amazingly, than Bihar.
I decided to come to Orissa to write about the general election and the state’s assembly elections (where the second and final stage of voting takes place today) because I thought the sleepy, low-performing state was full of urgent social and other election issues. My list included tribal clashes last year with attacks and killings of Christians, violent demonstrations and deaths over the use of agricultural and tribal land for big steel and other projects such as those planned by Posco, Tata Steel Ltd and L.N. Mittal, plus a growing Naxalite threat (with 29 people killed on Orissa’s first polling day last week). Also on my list, of course, was Patnaik, who unexpectedly broke his Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) 11-year alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last month and who, to quote a journalist friend, “seems to have the state in his grip”.
That seemed a basket of important subjects—religion, land, lawlessness, dynasty, and coalitions—till I spoke to a friend in Bhubaneswar and asked what the issues were. “Rice politics,” he replied, explaining that much of Patnaik’s popularity is based on having reduced the price of rice to Rs2 a kg for roughly half the state’s 37 million population. “With rice, BJD schemes to get third time lucky,” said a newspaper headline. Now, the Congress and the BJP have been promising to reduce that to Re1.
It is, I thought, the same the world over. Between elections, all sorts of issues grab public and political attention, but when it comes to voting in the next government, it is the price of food in the shops that counts. Yet, when I arrived in Orissa, I discovered that even though rice is perhaps the determining factor for many of the poor, there are few policy clashes. “The election is being fought without any issues,” says Sudhir Pattnaik, editor of Samadrushi, an Oriya magazine. “There’s no difference between the parties.”
The BJP has certainly lost ground because of the anti-Christian riots at Kandhamal last August, with thousands of Christians still in relief camps, but that is being offset to some extent by criticism of the way Patnaik dumped the party. Past social unrest over big projects does not seem to be an issue, except in the localities affected. Abhaya Sahu, the Communist Party of India (CPI) member who led the anti-Posco movement, has been in jail since last October, but no one seems concerned, even though the CPI has a seat-adjustment deal with the BJD. And the Naxalite attacks seem to be tolerated, even though the government has allowed the Maoist influence to stretch to 18 districts in recent years.
Instead, the major focus is on Patnaik and whether he can survive and maintain his party’s presence in Parliament without the BJP. He has made many enemies because, behind the kindly exterior, he can be a brutal operator and has sacked at least 10 ministers and a clutch of senior bureaucrats, sometimes for corruption or other misdemeanours.
Despite the need to collect funds on big projects to fund the BJD—and reports of links with some leading businessmen planning big projects—these sackings have enabled Patnaik to build something of a corruption-free image among the poor. I asked Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a former top bureaucrat who is Patnaik’s main adviser, how they managed to accumulate party finances. “We don’t ask for donations, but I will say thank you if (someone) comes and offers at the time of elections,” he replied, smiling. He claimed this approach had drawn businessmen to the state.
In the assembly, the BJD currently has 61 seats, supported till last month by the BJP’s 32, with the Congress’ 38 leading the opposition. Observers expect the BJD figure to go down because of the break from the BJP, and the consequential split vote that could benefit the Congress. Mohapatra, however, forecasts the BJD will go up to an astonishing 85-93, reducing the BJP to 12-14. That is partly based on an opinion poll he commissioned before the split, which showed that 79% of those voting for the BJD-BJP alliance in 2004 were really supporting the BJD and only 21% the BJP. This gave Patnaik the confidence to break away when the BJP and its allied Sangh Parivar organizations became a political embarrassment after the Kandhamal riots.
In the outgoing Parliament, the BJD has 11 representatives while the BJP has seven from the state and the Congress three.
Mohapatra forecasts the BJD will go up to 13 or 14, which will make it a significant though maybe not a major player in deciding which political combine comes to power. He says the BJD will not support any government led by either the Congress (for historic reasons) or the BJP, and will insist on pro-Orissa policies, notably an agreement to boost extremely low royalties paid to the state for iron ore mining.
If, as seems quite possible, the BJD does get somewhere near Mohapatra’s forecasts and wins a third successive term in office in Orissa, Patnaik will have confounded his critics. But then there will be pressure on him to do more to lift the state from the bottom of India’s poverty league.
Formerly with the Financial Times, John Elliott is a Delhi-based contributor to Fortune magazine and writes a blog, Riding the Elephant, at http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com. This is the first in a four-part series offering an outsider’s view of the biggest democratic process the world has seen. Next week: Meera Sanyal—the banker who would be MP.
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