As largely expected, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has retained power as a bigger section of the Odia electorate has rewarded him a historic fifth straight term in office. In the State’s political history, the 2019 Assembly poll has been a watershed since this election was in many ways about the salience of his cult. First time, Odia voters got a taste of how a leader’s cult or legacy is being tested in a presidential poll sort of way. First time too, Odia voters engaged themselves in social media about the pressing electoral issues at such a large scale. First time, the rest of India could see that a Jyoti Basu kind of super-success could still be repeated in this age and time and that too, in a state that does not know caste politics or religious polarisation as its political staple. This poll has marked the coming-of-age of Naveen Patnaik, the seasoned strategic politician.
Winning about 115 seats off 146 even in the fifth straight bid to office is a grand feat as his story is arguably more about strategy and less about charisma. He is neither a celluloid celebrity nor a glib orator nor has sold any social movement to multiple generations. For someone who was not a politician for about fifty years of his life before being parachuted into political power, he was expected to fizzle out after a few years in power. To his credit, he has represented the best of Odia leadership for the last five elections piggybacking on Odias’ disappointment with the available crop of politicians across party lines and not on any social movement. While his father was a natural mass leader with significantly less political success, he is a self-made mass leader with a strategically crafted political brand built over time.
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Like most other regional satraps of Indian politics, Naveen has been authoritarian, but contrary to a typical majoritarian, he has been conspicuously innocuous and less controversial and propagandist at that. The bureaucrats have led the governance machinery and the ruling party politicians and ministers have become faceless. His public policy trope has been simple: right-of-centre policies garnished with a slew of populist welfare schemes.
So knowing that he is going for his fifth straight term, why have voters again reposed faith in Patnaik?
Naveen now means different things to different sets of voters. A certain section of voters have appreciated his disaster mitigation successes, women voters have rooted for him due to a plethora of women welfare schemes and self-help groups. Young voters have liked his new-found thrust on sports. The KALIA dole-out scheme, the Aahaar meal centres, the Hockey World Cup, the series of welfare schemes coming in instalments, the distribution of smartphones to women, Make-in-Odisha conclave, all these are now part of the Naveen saga that has offset the anti-incumbency related loss of sheen.
A bigger section of voters have ignored several governance flaws and his failures on economic growth and development. Despite superb economic growth over the Naveen years (2000-13), in the outgoing term, the state has languished in social sector indices and employment creation while income inequality among regions and social groups has been increasing. His earlier stints have carried the baggage of mining and chit fund scams. The PC Sarkar jibe and ‘Biju babunka swapna’ or ‘Apanmane khusi ta’ online memes are testimony to the fact that low political competition and high administrative inertia have led to rampant corruption. However, the charges did not stick. Voters have also chosen to ignore incidents of crime against women and graft.
The near-20 years in power have seasoned Naveen. So when he faced a resurgent opposition helmed by younger leaders and onset of BJP’s well-oiled electoral juggernaut, he shed that reclusive image and became social media savvy. Sponsoring a party cadre in Biju Yuva Bahini, retaining some corrupt ministers/MLAs instead of sacking them, allowing glimpses of his private life to be on social media, running in two Assembly constituencies etc. are uncharacteristic of his earlier persona, yet have chipped into his micro-marketing strategies. Weaker organizational structure of BJP and a dwindling Congress have made matters easier for him. As BJP and Congress had a lot of BJD dissidents in their candidate lists, the TINA trope was spectacular.
Apart from leadership skills and electoral micro-management, super-successful politicians have something special about them. The phenomenon of Naveen Patnaik is a product of hard strategy that has created his seemingly charismatic halo. His no-nonsense unassuming approach to everyday politics is his oomph. Some say his studied aloofness adds to his aura and he has shrewdly converted a seemingly disadvantageous fact of his not speaking Odia in public even after living in the state for more than twenty years into an effective and deliberate political strategy. If systematically weeding out potential adversaries from his party from time to time in one ruse or the other has been his strategy to survive the dirty game of chairs so far, his replicating Narendra Modi-style publicity blitz and reaching out to both the mass and class voters through various social media and public relations management programs has been successful.
Today’s mandate is a reaffirmation that Naveen Patnaik will be long remembered as the foremost leader in the history of modern Odisha. I am sure his fiercest critics will concur with this assertion.
Sitakanta Panda is an Assistant Professor of Economics at Indian Institute of Management Amritsar. Views are personal. Email: email@example.com