Touching the feet of Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and with “Jai Jagganath” on his lips, V Kartikeyan Pandian, the 49-year-old IAS officer who opted for voluntary retirement in October this year, formally joined the Biju Janata Dal on the auspicious day of Kartik Purnima.
“As all of you know, he’s been working very hard for several years for the people of our state, and has earned their respect and trust. He will continue to do so as a member of the party. I wish him all the best,” said Odisha CM and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik, emphatically and unambiguously supporting his former private secretary’s entry into the party.
Replying to Patnaik, Pandian said: “With the blessings of the Almighty, the guidance of the Chief Minister and your support, I will serve the people of Odisha sincerely, humbly and selflessly.”
What was to be an official induction mimicked the ceremonial handing over of the baton by the old guard to young blood; except that Tamilian VK Pandian would be the unlikely inheritor of a legacy that 78-year-old, five-time chief minister Naveen Patnaik built so carefully over quarter of a century since the death of his father and iconic chief minister Biju Patnaik.
While on the campaign trail in 2019 Lok Sabha elections, Patnaik was often asked on who his successor would be and his answer remained the same: “The people of Odisha will decide.”
And, there were a few occasions when the visits of Arun Patnaik, Naveen Patnaik’s nephew, sparked speculation of the former joining the BJD. That, however, never happened. Therefore, the BJD supremo’s endorsement of Pandian is a huge political signal to his party, the opposition and the people, coming as it does just months before the crucial Odisha elections.
“I think it’s a very positive development. He brings to the table vast administrative experience and very finely honed political skills because he has worked very closely with Naveen Patnaik whose political mind is peerless. So he’s had the advantage of learning at the feet of a master. The BJD will vastly benefit from these qualities. And, there is little doubt that the state will also continue to benefit from his experience and acumen. He is exceptionally hardworking and is known to work from 4am to 10pm without a break,” BJD MP Pinaki Misra said.
Incidentally, most of Pandian’s visits to Puri are before daybreak.
“Pandian’s whole life is service to the state. Now service to the party will be added, which everybody in the BJD will only welcome,” Misra added.
Denying speculation of any resentment within the BJD, Misra argued, “Everybody welcomes a winning ticket, and if they believe that Kartik ji joining the party will make their ticket a confirmed winning ticket, there is no question of any resentment by anyone in the BJD.”
Misra, however, added that Pandian’s induction should not be seen as a succession plan. “Naveen babu still has a long way to go. Therefore, this should not be looked upon as a succession plan. Instead, it is a reinforced and very determined bid to ensure Naveen babu comes back as Chief Minister for a record sixth term.”
Misra could very well be voicing the opinion of other senior leaders of the BJD who lined up first at Naveen Niwas, the Chief Minister’s residence, and then at Sankha Bhawan, the BJD’s headquarters in Bhubaneswar, to welcome Pandian to the party. The CM’s open endorsement of Pandian had sent a strong political signal.
Suave, soft-spoken and impeccably mannered, Patnaik has been ruthless when it comes to dealing with any rebellion or challenge to his position. Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the first bureaucrat Patnaik had relied on to run the government and party upon becoming CM, had nurtured chief ministerial ambitions of his own; Bijoy Mohapatra, senior BJD leader who posed a threat to Patnaik; MP Baijyant Panda who aspired for a bigger role in the state; and, most recently, MLA Soumya Ranjan Patnaik, who questioned the growing clout of Pandian were all axed mercilessly.
“I would rate Naveen Patnaik as a first-rate politician as he is clinical and unemotional. He is not attached to anybody. He does the right thing at the right time,” a veteran BJD leader had told this reporter once.
“Ahead of the 2024 elections, the rank and file within the BJD have adjusted to the changing equations that Pandian’s entry into the party engenders, knowing the powerful role he will play.
After his voluntary retirement, Pandian was appointed as chairman of 5T (Transformational Initiatives) and ‘Nabin Odisha’, and was given a cabinet rank. However, with his formal entry into the BJD, he will transition into the role of a politician.
In any case, over the past one year, in his capacity as 5T Secretary, Pandian has toured all 147 Assembly constituencies, addressing public gatherings, carrying out high-octane temple visits that help brush his non-Odia image, maintaining a tight grip over party affairs and ceaselessly meeting various groups of people.
Pandian’s public meetings attracted criticism from the opposition, forcing Chief Minister Patnaik to clarify in the Assembly that the former was doing so at his instructions. Every move that the once publicity-shy bureaucrat has made indicates desire to be accepted by the people of Odisha.
So the question is, would VK Pandian also take the electoral plunge and contest in 2024?
Talks of Pandian inheriting the legacy of Naveen Patnaik may be too early, for, after all, he is a Tamilian who is married to Odia IAS officer Sujatha Kartikeyan.
Former BJD leader and current BJP national vice-president Baijyant Panda said: “It is one thing to rule from behind the curtain and quite another to do so openly. Only time will tell how this will play out. The founder of the Biju Janata Dal, Biju Patnaik, was a proud Odia, and today, his soul will be pained as will that of 4.5 crore Odia people, not one of whom was deemed fit to run the party.”
Odisha has already had a non-Odia chief minister in Biren Mitra from October 2, 1963 to February 20, 1965. However, 2023 is not 1963. Roots matter in politics and Pandian knows that well.
In fact, the late Biju Patnaik is not known to have had any succession plan for the BJD, with his three children — Prem, Gita and Naveen — growing up outside Odisha. Post Patnaik’s death in 1997, seeing the swell of support during his funeral, the party’s central leadership offered the Aska constituency to Prem Patnaik. Prem refused and then it was offered to Naveen Patnaik, who took it up. The rest, as they say, is history.
As BJD leader AU Singh Deo said once: “Bhilam looti gopiyan/wahi Arjun, wahi vaan/purush nahi/samay ho, toh balwan (As long as your time is good, you keep winning battles.)”