CM who lives to fight another day

This biography of Naveen Patnaik by a respected colleague, Ruben Banerjee, is not an authorised one. As a Bhubaneswar-based reporter, Mr Banerjee was fortunate to observe Mr Patnaik at close quarters but the leader apparently did not consent to be interviewed for the book. This is not surprising. The interviews Mr Patnaik has granted in his political career (spanning more than 30 years) can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He is said to be quiet, charming, self-deprecating but ruthless in eliminating competitors and potential threats. Most political parties and their leaders tend to use politics to edge out rivals. Mr Patnaik uses politics to befriend them, in the process, becoming the one to decide who/what his opposition will be.

Take, for example, the recent election of the Deputy Chairman of the Rajya Sabha. Mr Patnaik responded graciously to a call made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and extended support to the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) candidate, knowing full well that but for his help, the NDA could lose the position to the Opposition. In this, he appeared to have lost a small battle (the Bharatiya Janata Party’s campaign against him and the Biju Janata Dal has been strident) but may have won the war: After accepting his support, Mr Modi and party president Amit Shah are hardly likely to denounce him all over Odisha as privileged and entitled. More to the point, the BJP’s most influential Odiya leader and possible chief ministerial candidate, Dharmendra Pradhan, will now have to fight the Assembly elections (which are admittedly some time away) with one hand tied behind his back.

But as Mr Banerjee notes wryly in his book: That’s Naveen Patnaik for you. His portrait of the leader chronicles with sardonic humour, the initial years of his apprenticeship in politics: The culture shock of being uprooted from the playgrounds of Europe to the filth, grime and poverty of Odisha; his repeated invocation of his father, the legendary Biju Patnaik’s legacy, leading to some hilarious situations; the systematic elimination of rivals present and future to consolidate his position; and the occasional flash of tenderness when Mr Banerjee describes his subject’s humaneness.

Politicians rarely have time for individual acts of kindness. But Mr Banerjee recounts some interventions where the chief minister went beyond the call of duty. During a tour, a mother of two, the third on the way, fell at the chief minister’s feet: Her husband, a trucker, had died and she had no means to support herself. What was she to do? “Pregnant, two children, dead husband,” Mr Patnaik muttered this repeatedly to himself as he left Koraput district. His anxiety was obsessive — and it infected his officials. They sensed his mood and by the time he reached the capital at the end of his tour, informed him that the woman had got all possible aid from the administration: A widow pension, a job at the local anganwadi centre and a house under the Indira Awas Yojana. “Only then did the chief minister seem to relax,” Mr Banerjee notes.

That said, the truth cannot be denied. Naveen Patnaik presides over a state where a man has to carry the dead body of his wife on his back and walk several miles to cremate her because there is no other means of transport. This is the land that made “starvation death” a household phrase (Mr Banerjee argues that not all the deaths were starvation-related and many were misreported. Still). This is where men and children were burnt alive because they were doing god’s work — only it was the wrong god. This is also a state where a giant like South Korean steel manufacturer, Posco, tried but failed to acquire a piece of land because of the fierce resistance of tribals who wielded nothing more than bows and arrows. And this is where two Italian tour operators were kidnapped by Maoists. The message of Mr Banerjee’s book is that Naveen Patnaik has survived so long as chief minister because he knows which battles to fight and which ones to postpone for a later date.

With no sign that he is going to retire anytime soon, Mr Banerjee also wonders who will succeed Naveen Patnaik. He rules out any member of the family and leaves the tantalising question open. He explores the rise and decline of the Congress, the prospects of the BJP but leaves you wondering if we are going to see the death throes of Biju Patnaik’s legacy.

Mr Banerjee writes with the flair and elan of a reporter: And as all reporters know, the desk will take care of mistakes in construction and idiom. Sadly, the Juggernaut desk lets him down in this respect. On pages 76 and 174, Mr Banerjee writes about giving Patnaik company on lonely evenings. But he must have kept Patnaik company. On page 114, he says his oratory could not light up the Mahanadi river. But shouldn’t it be that he failed to set the Mahanadi river on fire? Many split infinitives have been left unattended.

But these are small irritations. Do you sometimes wish with a sigh, after reading a satisfying book, that you had written it? Ruben Banerjee’s book is one of those.

 

Naveen Patnaik
Ruben Banerjee 
Juggernaut
256 pages 
Rs 599