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Far from showing any signs of complacency, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik has commenced his fifth chief ministerial term in Odisha more impressively than ever before

Siddhartha Tripathy

Some Bharatiya Janata Party leaders of Odisha began fuming early this month.

Still smarting from yet another humiliating loss to the Biju Janata Dal in the recently concluded elections, in which the massive Modi wave drowned the fate of almost all of the BJP’s political rivals across the nation except the BJD, they had finally found a way to channel their anger and frustration after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik formally announced his decision on June 2 to vacate the Bijepur assembly seat and retain the Hinjili constituency.

Having contested in two constituencies (the former in Bargarh district and latter in Ganjam district) for the first time ever, and handsomely winning both, the BJD supremo had made a statement of sorts to all those propagating the notion that his and his party’s popularity in western Odisha was on the wane.

So when he sent his resignation to Odisha Assembly Speaker Surya Narayan Patro, which was not done without Naveen profusely thanking the people of Bijepur for their support and assuring them of continuing to work for their area’s development, the BJP reacted with prompt indignation.

The first one to do so perhaps was the party’s Sambalpur MLA, Jaya Narayan Mishra, who said the Chief Minister’s relinquishment of the Bijepur constituency proved that he had no concern for Bijepur and had a “discriminating attitude towards western Odisha”.

The BJD boss’s decision was “his latest act of betrayal towards the people of western Odisha”, Mishra thundered.

Echoing his words were those of Suresh Pujari. The BJP national secretary and freshly-elected Lok Sabha member from Bargarh claimed Naveen’s decision to leave Bijepur assembly constituency left the people of the region feeling “cheated”.

However, many political experts reckon, that is highly unlikely to happen.

Barely three days before his resignation, Naveen had announced a Rs 1,330 crore worth of development package exclusively for Bijepur. The package includes plans to provide pucca houses to 34,000 families in the constituency, two major piped water supply schemes (that would assure water supply to all households within the coming two years), a 48-crore worth lift irrigation project, 29 river lift irrigation projects and around 3,000 deep borewell irrigation projects.

Although Naveen’s critics in the BJP have dismissed that special package as mere hogwash, the people of Bijepur constituency who voted overwhelmingly in the BJD boss’s favour know better than to agree with that unsubstantiated perspective. After all, the experts argue, Naveen has been winning back-to-back elections over the past two decades in no small part to the fulfilment of the promises he makes to the people of his home state.

The truth, however, is that this is just one of the reasons behind Naveen’s incredible and enduring political success. Another equally important and consequential factor has been Naveen’s ability to take the right decisions at the right time – an art he seems to have perfected over the long time he has spent in administrative politics.

This was in evidence aplenty in the near past, not just during the election season but as recently as around the time of his oath-taking ceremony.

Barely two days before the BJD chief was to be sworn in as Chief Minister for the fifth time, his official residence was abuzz with aspiring ministerial candidates, who were perceived by the media to be lobbying hard at Naveen Niwas for positions of power.

However, long-timers of the BJD were quick to dismiss that perception.

“Setting up the Council of Ministers is the prerogative of the Chief Minister. So, there is no point in lobbying for a ministerial berth,” explained senior BJD leader Prafulla Mallick.

Snehangini Chhuria, who was also a minister in the previous BJD government, agreed: “Allocation of the ministerial berth is the sole discretion of the Chief Minister.”

This was the stock response of all BJD leaders who were asked about their ministerial prospects in the new Naveen Patnaik government ahead of the swearing-in ceremony. There was not an iota of doubt in the BJD circles across the state (none evident before the media at least) that Naveen was the absolute authority and ultimate decision maker for the party.

However, as more and more BJD lawmakers talked about getting calls from the Chief Minister’s residence intimating them about their induction, it was getting increasingly clear that the latest edition of Naveen Patnaik administration would be a mix of new and experienced faces.

Among them were old-timer Sushant Singh, who was Energy Minister in the previous BJD government, and first-timer Tukuni Sahu, who received a phone call from Patnaik himself about her induction in the new council of ministers.

On May 29, when Naveen took his oaths once again, those preliminary reports turned out to be accurate.

While Bikram Keshari Arukha retained the Forest and Environment and Parliamentary Affairs Department, Prafulla Kumar Mallik was once again given the Steel and Mines and Works Departments apart from being appointed as Minister of State for Home.

Among other ministers of state, Jagannath Sarka got the important portfolios of Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Welfare, while Dibya Shankar Mishra was given charge of the Energy, Industries, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises Departments.

Ranendra Pratap Swain got Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Welfare, and Co-operation, Padmanabha Behera received Planning and Convergence, Commerce and Transport, Pratap Jena was allotted the Panchayati Raj, Drinking Water, Law, Housing and Urban Development Departments, and Arun Kumar Sahoo assigned Agriculture and Farmers’ Empowerment, Fisheries and Animal Resources Development and Higher Education.

Sudam Marndi was handed the portfolios of Revenue and Disaster Management, with Susanta Singh given Rural Development, Labour and Employees’ State Insurance. Naba Kisore Das got Health and Family Welfare while Tukuni Sahu was appointed Minister for Women and Child Development and Mission Shakti.

Ashok Chandra Panda received Science and Technology, Public Enterprises, Social Security and Empowerment of Persons with Disability, whereas Samir Ranjan Das bagged School and Mass Education and Jyoti Prakash Panigrahi landed with Tourism, Odia Language, Literature and Culture.

Premananda Nayak got Skill Development and Technical Education, Raghunandan Das took Water Resources, Information and Public Relations, Padmini Dian was assigned Handlooms, Textiles and Handicrafts and Tusharkanti Behera would handle Electronics and Information Technology, Sports and Youth Services.

The swearing-in ceremony was brilliantly planned and made a statement by itself. In view of the devastation and loss caused by Cyclone Fani, the latest edition of the ceremony was kept even more low-key than earlier times. This stood in sharp contrast to the grand event organised by the BJP for Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the national capital day later coronation.

Again, for the first time ever, Naveen took oath in a public exhibition ground – breaking away from the norm of doing so in the Raj Bhawan. Many political observers agreed that this move further boosted the BJD supremo’s image as a people’s leader, as it flew in the face of those accusing him of being unreachable, reclusive and elitist.

Ahead of the ceremony, Naveen also made it a point to visit the Lord Jagannath temple in Puri. While that might just have been for seeking blessings ahead of a brand-new innings, it was also seen as a clear indicator of the Chief Minister’s intention of resurrecting the ravaged holy city after it bore the brunt of Cycone Fani as its point of landfall.

Within hours after the ceremony, Naveen made another impressive and timely move.

In the first ever cabinet meeting of his fifth term, the Chief Minister promptly fulfilled a major promise that he had made ahead of and during the election period.

“As part of our commitment to farmers … the target of KALIA [Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation] scheme beneficiaries has been increased to 75 lakh farm families,” the Chief Minister announced.

The new figure meant 33 lakh families would benefit from the welfare scheme in addition to the 42 lakh farming households that were already doing so.

In his previous government, Patnaik had launched the scheme with an objective to benefit about 92 per cent of the farmers in the state by providing financial, livelihood and cultivation support to small, marginal and landless farmers.

“Fund release starts from today with immediate effect and about 25 lakh additional families will be assisted in a week time,” the Chief Minister announced.

In keeping with the Naveen Patnaik government’s long-time tradition of empowering women, as well as to keep the BJD chief’s latest promises to a community that makes for a significant share of votes for the party, the cabinet also approved a proposal to provide women self-help groups (SHGs) with Rs 1,000 crore worth of government business through Mission Shakti.

“Forty different types of activities such as paddy procurement, uniforms for children, hospital diet and mosquito nets and mid day meal will be part of this in the first phase,” Naveen stated.

“With these two resolutions, the promise I had made about KALIA and Mission Shakti to be implemented on the day we assume office is honoured,” he added.

Just before the cabinet meeting, the council of Ministers also approved in principle the latest BJD manifesto as the new government’s priority. “I know some of the promises take time. I want the Ministers to put their best efforts in this regard,” Naveen said.

However, the Chief Minister was not making statements for effect, as is seen in Indian politics all too often. Within a couple of days of that cabinet meeting, it was revealed that Naveen had clearly laid out for his ministers the road map for the same.

The ministers were asked to submit report cards at the Chief Minister’s Office on the steps taken by their respective departments towards implementation of the BJD manifesto. In addition to this, Naveen also told the ministers that the government would have to keep the Odisha people informed on a monthly basis about the steps taken to fulfil the promises made to them by the BJD during the election season.

Many political analysts of the country have noted that this self-imposed strict accountability to the public has been virtually unprecedented in India’s political history. By the time this new measure gets implemented in full steam, Naveen will have raised the bar for good governance in all of India many notches higher.

And given Naveen’s history as Chief Minister, in which he has promptly dropped many a minister, MLA and party leader for corruption, non-performance, disloyalty and impropriety over the past decade and beyond, it will be extremely unlikely – and foolhardy – for any of his new ministers not to take his instructions with utmost seriousness and carry them out with optimum efficiency.

Apart from these things, the BJD boss has also managed to finely balance extremely tricky equations with the Centre, which is virtually always ruled by a rival political party, whether it be the Congress or the BJP. This has been evident all the more in recent times, when Naveen neither committed to be a part of an anti-BJP, Congress-led United Opposition nor that of a Third Front (an idea of a powerful alliance of regional parties opposed to both the BJP and Congress, which never quite took off at a national level anyway).

Unlike other regional satraps such as Trinamool chief Mamata Banerjee Naveen never went gung-ho against Prime Minister Modi in particular or the BJP in general. He did not do even respond in kind when the BJP leadership adopted an extremely aggressive posture against him in the months leading up to the 2019 elections.

Naveen always let his work, development-oriented policies and welfare schemes do the talking. He put in place a close-knit team led by V.K. Pandian, an IAS officer who has for long been his private secretary, to ensure proper and timely implementation of the BJD government’s plans and schemes.

And when the right time arrived a few fortnights ago, when push came to shove amid the BJP’s prolonged and unprecedented campaign blitzkrieg in its efforts to conquer Odisha, Naveen undertook an ingeniously choreographed and comprehensive election campaign of his own to reach out and get his message across to the people of his state. They heard him alright.

Even after rewriting history once again with his fifth straight electoral victory in Odisha, Naveen’s balancing act has been ongoing. Although both the BJD boss and Prime Minister Modi exchanged customary congratulations for their respective electoral victories, neither attended each other’s swearing-in ceremony.

But all is well.

As India First went to press, Naveen was in New Delhi on a week-long visit to meet Prime Minister Modi, President Ram Nath Kovind and other Union Ministers amid speculations that the NDA government was planning to offer the Deputy Speaker post to the BJD in the Lok Sabha.

In his June 11 meeting with Prime Minister Modi, their very first since the two leaders retained power at their respective positions, Naveen laid his cards on the table.

Seeking central assistance of Rs 5,000 crore on account of the extensive damage caused in the state by supercyclone Fani, Naveen urged the Prime Minister to help Odisha get special category status.

In addition, the Chief Minister also sought cooperation from the Centre in construction of five lakh ‘pucca’ houses for the state and an increase in coal royalty which in itself would generate sufficient amount of much-needed revenue for Odisha.

More through his actions than words, Naveen seems to have convinced the nation that in his grand scheme of things, the welfare of Odisha takes a clear precedence over political ambitions and affiliations.

Not long after the BJD’s victory, when a leading media group’s TV anchor asked Naveen about his ambition for yet another term as Chief Minister in the 2024 elections, his response was: “I certainly hope that it (the BJD’s 2019 elections result in Odisha) will repeat itself for the sixth term.”

Thanks to all that Naveen has done for Odisha and is continuing to do now with ever-increasing effectiveness as its five-time Chief Minister, that nationally broadcasted TV statement neither sounded arrogant nor over-optimistic.

Based on hard facts and strong intent, it just made perfect sense.

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