Is Naveen Patnaik The Designated Survivor?

COVID-19 got me into Netflix. For a long long time, I was away from web-series: I saw it as a vicious web. I risked feeling completely out of place (almost a living anachronism) in most conversations, when people  would discuss with excitement about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or any other series. The pride of not following the herd did not assuage the feelings of alienation.

And then I heard Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik mention in an interview to renowned journalist Rajdeep Sardesai on India Today TV just before the elections in 2019 that he loved a particular series on Netflix. I was curious to check it out, but then my parents were terminally ill, and I forgot all about it.

COVID-19 got me into Netflix and OTT platforms just as the Indian victory in the cricket World Cup in 1983 got me to watch TV. I tried out different genres and liked the Friends, Big Bang Theory etc. But I realized I loved my political thrillers. That was my genre. I loved House of Cards, which is on the political intrigues and Machiavellian politics that led the power hungry Underwoods to snatch the US presidency. When the current lockdown started, I flirted with a few series, mostly spy thrillers like Nikita, Blacklist and Homeland. But knowing my real love for political thrillers, I was undecided between Madam Secretary, Designated Survivor and a couple of others.

I saw a little of both, and found the very premise of Designated Survivor very interesting. An honest and committed architect turned city planner, who had developed a housing solution, had been invited by the new President of the US to be his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. In a sudden turn of events, on the day of the State of the Union address by the new President, he is named as the “Designated Survivor”. A little research led me to know that the procedure originated during the paranoia of the Cold War when it was deemed hypothetically possible that top leaders in the Presidential line of succession could all be eliminated in the event of a terrorist attack with mass casualty. Hence, at events such as a State of the Union address, where all the top leaders are to congregate, one of them, the Designated Survivor, is kept at an undisclosed safe location at that time. In the event of such a catastrophe, he takes over the office of the President of the United States.

The web series begins with that hypothetical situation coming true. The architect turned academic, who was about to get his appointment as Secretary, is suddenly thrown into the Chair of the President, having escaped the attack as the Designated Survivor. It is something he had never prepared for, having never wanted a career in politics, having never had a day in politics. In fact, just before the attack, he had heard that the President had planned to have someone else as the HUD Secretary. The drama does not end there. President Kirkman later finds that his closest aide, the Vice President, was one of the main conspirators in the bombing of the Capitol and subsequent attempts on his own life. His closest aide after this, his Secretary of State also tries to undermine his presidency and he has to throw him out.

As I kept watching the series, I could not avoid making comparisons with Naveen Patnaik. I had heard that apparently, he was similarly thrown into political leadership following the death of his father Biju Patnaik , when he had been nowhere there in the speculated line of succession, which included the mighty like Bijoy Mahapatra and Dilip Ray. He had no experience in politics and was apparently disinterested as well. President Kirkman’s misadventures with his closest aides, one after the other, also sounded uncannily similar. What was most interesting was that, President Kirkman in the web-series Designated Survivor becomes popular because he is the very anti-thesis of the polarized self-serving politics played by most people. He comes across as a genuine, honest leader, committed to create a better world both for Americans and for others but having his own weaknesses.

I am not competent to say how genuine, honest and committed Naveen Patnaik is, but from what I have observed, I can definitely say that part of his magic wand is that Naveen Patnaik is the antithesis of the “typical politician” one sees in popular media. He definitely continues to be seen as clean, honest and a refreshing change as a political leader. I continue to be amazed and impressed with many of his out-of-the-box political decisions.

A couple of hours back, I was chatting with a friend  and I complained about how I had spent a great deal of my time on Netflix during the lockdown instead of spending my time on more productive work. He pulled my leg as usual and said, “That’s what all big people do.” I was quick to quip, “I am not Naveen Patnaik” and told him about the Rajdeep Sardesai interview in which he had mentioned watching Netflix.

After the call, out of curiosity, I looked for the interview. When Rajdeep asks him, “Are you on Netflix? What are you watching?”, Naveen replies, “I am watching Designated Survivor. It’s very good. You must watch it”.

(Note: In the United States, a designated survivor (or designated successor) is a named individual in the presidential line of succession, chosen to stay at an undisclosed secure location, away from events such as State of the Union addresses and presidential inaugurations. The practice of designating a successor is intended to prevent a hypothetical decapitation of the government and to safeguard continuity in the office of the president in the event the president along with the vice president and multiple other officials in the presidential line of succession die in a mass-casualty incident. The procedure originated in the 1950s during the Cold War with its risk of nuclear attack.)

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