Patriarch In A Pickle: Naveen Patnaik In An Unfamiliar Political Space

Akshaya Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Will he recede into the shadows, or will he lead from the front to stage a fightback? Difficult questions surround the next move of Naveen Patnaik, the Biju Janata Dal patriarch.

While his advancing age — he is 77 now — and alleged poor health are obvious handicaps, the bigger issue is that of the quality of leadership he can offer to his party which is unfamiliar with being out of power.

On the face of it, the BJD is not in dire straits, it’s just an electoral setback from which recovery should not be an uphill task. The party registered the maximum vote share at 40.22 per cent, compared to the BJP’s 40.07 per cent. It won 51 seats and lost several seats with small margins, which cannot be called a disastrous performance.

With seven-plus percentage additional vote share compared to 2019, the BJP added 55 more seats. Vote-to-seat conversion rate is one variable difficult to control. But it can reverse the next time. So BJD can take hope from that.

However, that is the brighter side. The actual situation for the party is much gloomier. It’s apparent to any casual observer of Odisha’s polity that there’s no second-rung leadership left in the BJD. It has been effectively destroyed during the period bureaucrat-turned-politician VK Pandian called the shots. Among the ones who have retained their seats, none has any political stature, at least to be termed a pan-Odisha leader.

For the most part in the last five years, party leaders were ciphers serving Pandian’s ambition to be the next in line of succession after Naveen. Dissenting voices were booted out or silenced. Those who hogged the limelight were restricted mostly to television studios. The sight of party leaders busy trying to make Pandian’s meetings successful was ungainly, to say the least. And, it was also an indication that BJD, if it won, would be managed by Pandian loyalists. Of course, all this with the tacit approval of the former chief minister.

Political parties face long periods of turbulence when the next line of leaders are not groomed to take over responsibility. The Congress and the Left are examples at the national level. The BJD is likely to go the same way if Naveen fails to intervene with the authority and vision of a leader.

Will he do a course correction to steady the ship? That brings us to his style of leadership. He is not a hands-on leader. He is known to leave the affairs of governance and party to trustworthy and competent managers. Before Pandian it was ex-bureaucrat Pyarimohan Mahapatra. Both turned politically ambitious in their own way, but that is another story. Managers get a free hand under Naveen’s indulgent eyes.

Who will be the new manager? It’s obvious that he does not trust politicians much. Without power, a bureaucrat would command no respect. Naveen only has his goodwill among people in general and party cadres in particular to rely on. But that won’t be enough.

It’s possible Pandian will still be the man pulling the string in the background. That again would be counterproductive. It can lead to a split with Odia Asmita being the point of grouse. If he prefers to choose a politician, options are limited. Of the few visibly active now, some might face corruption charges under the BJP regime and hurt the party’s, by extension Naveen’s, reputation.

Naveen Patnaik faces the first genuine challenge in his political career. This he has to face on his own. As we have mentioned in an article, he is a laidback leader but not a naive one. Let’s wait for his next move.

(By arrangement with perspectivebytes.com)

Akshaya Mishra

Senior Journalist & Writer based in New Delhi

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