Naveen Patnaik: A late entrant who built a remarkable career with few parallels in politics

With the Biju Janata Dal failing to secure the numbers to form the govt. in Odisha, Mr. Patnaik misses out on being the longest-serving CM

Updated - June 05, 2024 02:18 am IST

Published - June 05, 2024 01:10 am IST - BHUBANESWAR

A connoisseur of art and culture, Naveen Patnaik, the five-time Odisha Chief Minister, has authored three books

A connoisseur of art and culture, Naveen Patnaik, the five-time Odisha Chief Minister, has authored three books | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, whose aura of invincibility remained unscathed till his defeat in the Assembly elections, the results of which were declared on Tuesday, marks the end of a remarkable political career.

A victory for Naveen Patnaik, a five-time CM and a two-time Union Minister, would have installed him in the CM’s post for the record sixth time and he would have been in the contention to become the country’s longest-serving CM, surpassing the record held by former Sikkim CM Pawan Chamling.

The 77-year-old politician, who had no knowledge of electoral politics until he turned 51, scripted a remarkable career with few parallels in Indian politics. The man who initially lacked knowledge of Odia when he took over the leadership of the State, the first linguistically-based State in India, remained its Chief Minister for an uninterrupted 24 years, further solidifying his enigmatic persona.

Naveen Patnaik’s political journey seemed predestined when he emerged as the most ideal candidate to take over the mantle after the death of his father , the legendary Biju Patnaik, on April 17, 1997. When the BJD was founded as a new regional party on December 26, 1997, he was made the president of the outfit.

Naveen Patnaik is the youngest son of late Biju Patnaik. With his elder brother Prem Patnaik, an industrialist, and sister late Gita Mehta, a renowned war correspondent and writer, not inclined to politics, he became the successor of his father, a cult figure who commanded huge respect in Odisha as well as nationally.

A connoisseur of art

Before entering politics, Naveen was a familiar figure in social circles both within and outside New Delhi. His visits to Odisha were infrequent, with few people having seen him before his father’s death. A connoisseur of art and culture, he had authored three books.

Before becoming the CM of Odisha on March 5, 2000, he had served as the Union Steel Minister in Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s Cabinet. His arrival in State politics coincided with the widespread unpopularity of the incumbent Congress government in Odisha, which faced criticism for its mishandling of post-super cyclone rehabilitation efforts.

Naveen Patnaik’s soft-spoken nature and reputation as a man of few words initially hid his limited proficiency in speaking Odia. However, the people of Odisha took it in their stride when he started to deliver on various welfare schemes and initially led a corruption-free administration.

During his early political career, the five-time Odisha CM relied on the late Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, a former IAS officer and close confidant of Biju Patnaik, for guidance in handling bureaucracy and BJD affairs. Political observers note that this dependence was not blind. He helmed the government without any hiccups for eight years. Despite the setbacks faced by the National Democratic Alliance in the 2004 general election, Mr. Patnaik’s electoral prospects in Odisha remained unaffected.

The 2008 anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal deeply affected him, prompting a decision to position the BJD as a secular party. Consequently, he severed ties with the BJP before the 2009 elections.

Before facing his life’s toughest election this year, the Odisha CM had faced his first major obstacle in 2012 when his mentor Pyari Mohan Mohapatra allegedly attempted a coup. V. K. Pandian, a 2000-batch IAS officer, played a crucial role in guiding him through this turbulent period.

Since then, there has been no looking back for the veteran regional leader. With Mr. Pandian, who eventually left the IAS to become a full-time member of the BJD, by his side, Naveen Patnaik’s leadership became more formidable. In 2023, he equalled the record set by former West Bengal CM Jyoti Basu as the second longest-serving Chief Minister in India.

Not in any front

Naveen Patnaik is a shrewd politician who has maintained cordial relationships with leaders at the national level. However, he has chosen to keep the BJD equidistant from both the Congress and the BJP. While other non-BJP parties were forming alliances to challenge Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Mr. Patnaik remained non-committal about joining any front. BJD’s ideological openness made it a sought-after party in era of coalition governments.

Over his continuous 24-year tenure, Naveen Patnaik has promoted and nurtured various beneficiary groups through his pioneering welfare initiatives, ensuring their loyalty as crucial voting blocs during elections.

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