On Saturday (October 28), the Instagram handle of VK Pandian had a new post update. With the Shri Jagannath Temple at Puri glowing in the darkness of pre-dawn, the lanky ex-bureaucrat and newly-appointed chairman of the 5T Initiatives and Nabin Odisha programme of Naveen Patnaik government launched himself into his new innings.
And then it was business as usual for the ‘man of the moment’ in Odisha. The 4 am officer — a moniker he has earned for his early dawn visits to project sites — got down to taking stock of the progress of Odisha government’s flagship Jagannath Temple Heritage Corridor project before morning light could break.
The state is waiting for his next move after resigning from the Indian Administrative Service — the new position in the cabinet rank is deemed to be just a stop-gap arrangement. The career of the Tamil Nadu-born 2000-batch IAS officer, a middle distance runner by training, closely resembles his athletics background. Like a 3,000-metre run, he has had a steady and gradual progression through the crowd.
Being handpicked by Naveen Patnaik to be his private secretary in 2011, Pandian won the complete trust of the CM by his loyalty and skills both in administration and political affairs. Slow and steady in approach, the soft-spoken officer worked his way through to acquire the all-powerful position after Naveen. So much so that in the recent years, he was assumed as the de facto CM — even BJD leaders by slip of tongue addressing him so.
Pandian, from his early career, displayed uncanny understanding of people’s pulse. People remember his stint as an additional district magistrate of Rourkela where he drove a JCB to demolish unauthorised encroachments. In his subsequent posting as Ganjam collector, he brought in innovations that caught the CM’s eye.
In May 2012, a year after his posting in the CM’s office, Naveen faced the worst crisis of his career when his political advisor Pyarimohan Mohapatra engineered a coup. The rebellion was quelled with Pandian quietly playing his part in the damage control exercise. Naveen was always known to have reposed his faith more in bureaucrats than his party colleagues and the failed coup meant he had to tread more cautiously. Sources close to Pandian would confide that he played a key role in throwing a protective ring around his boss and ensuring that no other power centre was created in the party ever after.
The power corridor began to concentrate around him. And his office on the third floor in the CM’s Secretariat turned a household name. Pandian became the only gateway to Patnaik.
In the last six years, Pandian marshaled the administration to drive some of the most ambitious initiatives that sought to transform Odisha. The state saw a new era of governance with Pandian professedly the mastermind of all the initiatives. His stamp has been hard to miss in Odisha’s governance map. Hosting the Asian Athletics Championships in just 90 days to two successive hockey men’s world cups and a host of international football and other sports tournaments catapulted Odisha into a global sports hub. From the Jagannath Heritage Corridor to developing all religious and tourist places, development of SCB Medical College, the state’s premier health facility, all bear his mark.
However, till 2019, Pandian preferred to work behind the curtains. The BJD sweep in 2019 changed the course. His subsequent appointment as the 5T (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time and Transformation) secretary, a wing specifically created for Pandian, making sure that each and every department were reportable to him. Since 2019, Patnaik allowed Pandian to operate with a free hand. While talks about his political positioning as Naveen’s heir gained strength, he seemed to play along. His recent district visits to listen to people’s grievances touched the raw nerve of the Opposition. The BJP and Congress challenged him to resign from service and join politics.
Pandian has obliged. But as the state heads to elections in just a few months, the track will not be easy. Questions will be asked. The last lap will be like a 400-metre hurdle for Pandian.