When it comes to the art of image management, there are very few political leaders in India who can match Naveen Patnaik, currently the longest serving Chief Minister of any state. His crack team is constantly on the lookout for something that would bolster his image as a politician who defies the accepted definition of an average Indian politician and position him nationally as a suave, courteous man of few words but solid action; as a statesman far above the venalities of the average politician. And he has this uncanny knack of turning every crisis into an opportunity to collect accolades.
Take the recent Cyclone Yaas, for example. At a review meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take stock of the damage wrought by the cyclone, the Odisha Chief Minister broke with tradition to announce that he would not ask for any central assistance because he didn’t want to ‘burden’ the Central government, which is engaged in a difficult and prolonged battle with Covid-19. Instead, he sought long-term support to build a cyclone resilient power system and embankment along the 480 km-long coast of the state. This was predictably hailed as evidence of a ‘new’ brand of politics and a perfect example of cooperative federalism. That the Prime Minister announced a Rs 500 crore package after his aerial survey of the affected areas anyway is, however, a different matter!
Of course, more often than not, the image building has been backed by solid work on the ground. Under Naveen’s watch, Odisha has certainly emerged as a role model in managing natural disasters for other states to follow. And the head of the UN office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) Mami Mizutori was stating the obvious when he praised the Odisha Chief Minister for his handling of Cyclone Yaas, saying; “Patnaik has provided the political commitment necessary to build a robust and well-resourced disaster management authority.”
More recently, the BJD supremo’s skill of turning adversity into an opportunity was on full display when he shot off a letter to Chief Ministers of all states on Wednesday seeking to build a consensus on the Centre procuring Covid vaccines and distributing them among states. The letter came after the state government cut a sorry figure over the fiasco of the ‘global tender’ floated by his government. No vaccine manufacturers came calling despite the state government first easing the conditions and then extending the date for opening of the tender by a week to attract suppliers. By now, it is clear that the foreign manufacturers of vaccines don’t want to do business with states and would rather deal with the Centre. But in writing the letter to all CMs, Naveen was not just seeking to gloss over the ill-advised move to go ahead with the global tender, but also to position himself as a consensus builder at the national level.
When Covid arrived in the country last year, the Odisha government was the first state off the blocks to announce a lockdown, two days before the PM announced a nationwide 21-day lockdown. His government moved with alacrity setting up exclusive Covid hospitals, Covid care centres and quarantine facilities in rural areas, giving sarpanches the ‘powers of a collector” and so on. Soon, the nation was hailing him as a leader who was ahead of the time. That his government failed in anticipating and planning for the second wave has been conveniently glossed over by the commentariat.
Thinking out of the box – and of course knowing what would bring laurels for him - has been a notable trait of Naveen Patnaik from the time he descended on the political scene in the state in the late 1990s. In the run up to the 2019 general elections, he played a masterstroke by announcing reservation of 33% of party tickets for the Lok Sabha elections for women, something that no other party had thought of. He earned accolades, votes - and, needless to say, the lasting gratitude of women, not just in his own state but across the nation – for this pro-women move. No one bothered to ask him why he failed to extend the same principle to the Assembly elections.
The previous year, the BJD boss had invited national attention when he sought the insertion of the word ‘ahimsa’ in the preamble of the Constitution while speaking at the first meeting of the National Committee for Commemoration of the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in New Delhi.
For all his efforts to emerge as a state politician with a national profile, Naveen Patnaik, however, has consistently and resolutely fought shy of positioning himself as the “face of the Opposition” despite the fact that his party has been an opposition party, at least technically, at the national level ever since he unilaterally broke off his alliance with the BJP in the run up to the 2009 general elections. Even as the sniping between the BJD and the party in power at the Centre has continued for public consumption, Naveen himself has enjoyed the best of relations with the ruling party at the Centre – first during the 10 years of UPA rule and then in the seven years of Modi Raj. Asked why he had not played a more proactive role at the national level, he has always stuck to his familiar “I am happy serving the 4.5 crore people of Odisha” line.
But his steadfast refusal to be part of any political grouping at the national level has never stopped from actively seeking a national profile for himself.