NEW DELHI: When Naveen Patnaik became the chief minister of Odisha in March 2000 he had two visible drawbacks, one personal and another administrative. On the personal front, he could not speak Odia, the language of the state he had been elected chief minister of.
Administratively, he had inherited a state that had been devastated by the super cyclone that hit the state in October 1999, less than six months before he was to take charge.
“Educated at Doon School and a classmate of Sanjay Gandhi, 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," senior journalist Ruben Banerjee wrote in his recent book, which is referred to as a political biography of Patnaik.
His speeches often evoked laughter among people of the state. However, he and his three-year-old party, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) were seen as change agents who could resolve issues, especially corruption. His language barrier, which still persists, soon became a boon and the popularity of his late father Biju Patnaik started helping him build an emotional connection with people and consequently a huge cadre ground up.
“His language barrier and conscious decision to be closer to the people helped him create an image. Till date, his clean image is a huge plus for the BJD and people vote his candidates on his name," said Jayant Mohapatra, a retired political science professor and political analyst in the state.
This image, coupled with his pro-people policies, has helped him retain power for the last four tenures, Mohapatra said.
Patnaik is likely to face some competition from the BJP but is still likely to be re-elected as chief minister for a fifth term when assembly elections results are announced on 23 May.
Early in his career as a chief minister he realised three things—the economic disadvantage of the state, the power of women as voters, and the emotional connect his father enjoyed as a leader.
He has had varying degrees of success in all three aspects over the last 19 years. He created more than 500,000 women self-help groups, gave them financial help, made them self-reliant and got their votes. Road and bridge infrastructure, access to schools, creating populist schemes for the poor, including rice for ₹1 per kilo, meals for ₹5 for the poor near hospitals, and road transport hubs made him instantly popular. However, his critics have said that his industrial policies did not yield much result.
“The 19 years of (BJD) rule have been filled with false promises for industrial parks, which never came up—biotech (2008), aluminium (2009), stainless steel (2010)—and spending crores in publicity. The youth were compelled to seek jobs outside as opportunities were not created in Odisha," BJP leader Aparajita Sarangi said recently.
However, Patnaik has been driving a silent revolution in state politics. He is known as a man of few words.
“He has always been guided by bureaucrats right from when the BJD was formed in 1997. Being a political novice he choose to be brief to avoid attention or expose flaws. He was more happy talking about art, paintings, good food in private meetings than about politics," said senior leader who left BJD recently who requested anonymity. The leader said for the first 12-14 years he was an able administrator and kept a hawk’s eye on work, though most of his work was carried out by bureaucrats.
But, Patnaik is a leader of the people. He goes to meet them. He never hesitates to inaugurate a tiny craft fair, a small 500-metre long bridge, a school or a religious festival. The conscious effort is to pass on a message to people: their chief minister is one among them and is always with them.
Jay Panda, once a close friend and party colleague of Patnaik, told the BBC three months ago that in the last five years he had started doubting his old friends and believing in a coterie of people (bureaucrats).
“This is visible in his rallies as on an average more than 100,000 people come to listen to him. Our CM’s connect with people is strong," said BJD leader Anup Sai.
But as the simultaneous election beckons in the state, Patnaik is in a tight spot this time. A slew of defections by senior leaders of BJD has strengthened rival BJP.
“That there is no alternative in Odisha is not true this time. BJD has handed over a ready-made organisation and vote base to BJP through senior leaders who left the party to join BJP. BJP is strong in western Odisha and making good noises in coastal belt ahead of a four phase election. Patnaik is facing perhaps his toughest battle since 2000 this time. But he remains an enigma, a puzzle Odisha politics," said another senior BJD leader who left the party requesting anonymity.
But Patnaik is gung-ho about his prospects: “We will get 21 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats this time (in 2014 BJD won 20 our 21 seats)," Naveen Patnaik has been saying in his election rallies for the last two weeks. “Our party will play a significant role in the formation of the central government," Patnaik is telling in rallies.