By Dr.Sasmit Patra
For the uninitiated to Odisha politics, a crash course in Naveen-Pyari combine could be the ideal starter encompassing the past 12 years of Odissan politics. This story is about Naveen, the CM and Pyari or Pyari Mohan Mohapatra a.k.a. PM (his abbreviated name), the proverbial "Uncle" and de-facto adviser to the CM. Naveen Patnaik is the son of the Odisha political stalwart Biju Patnaik.
He was a reclusive writer, more comfortable in the environs of New Delhi and New York than at his father's Forest Park residence in Bhubaneswar. Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the blue blooded IAS bureaucrat, was the "Man Friday" for the then Chief Minister Biju Patnaik and technically the number two in the state's bureaucratic hierarchy, expected to become the Chief Secretary in due course of time. In 1995 the Janata Dal political party of Biju Patnaik was routed in the state elections and this led to Pyari being exiled from the state secretariat to the cooler confines of the state's civil services training institute, the Gopabandhu Academy in Bhubaneswar.
In 1997, Naveen Patnaik and Prem Patnaik, sons of Biju Patnaik while attending his funeral and post-funeral rites were confronted with the million-dollar question of continuing Biju Babu's legacy. During that period the Congress was in power in Odisha and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was inching to power in Delhi. With the backbone of Biju Patnaik gone, Janata Dal seems like a Titanic in-waiting. Many senior leaders of Janata Dal suggested that the party merge with the BJP in Odisha. Some suggested continuing with the Janata Dal led by Ashok Das, the former President of the party and the strongman of Jajpur. Pramod Mahajan, the rising poster boy of the BJP suggested a new alternative. He suggested a new party named after the legacy of the later Biju Patnaik, led by his son Naveen and commandeered by the late Biju babu's lieutenants like Bijay Mohapatra, Dilip Ray, Nalini Kanta Mohanty among many others. This party would ally with the BJP to oust the Congress in 2000 state elections. The idea germinated and took root with the formation of the Biju Janata Dal on 26th December, 1997 in Bhubaneswar. The party backed by a strong sympathy wave in favour of Biju Babu's legacy and Naveen Patnaik's somber persona, riding on anti-incumbency and corruption charges against Janaki Ballabh Patnaik's Congress Government, came to power in Odisha in coalition with the BJP in 2000. The founder leaders of the BJD figured out ways and means to keep Naveen under their thumb and rule Odisha by default. Naveen startsed to suffocate but being a novice in politics and without the shrewdness required of a coastal Odisha leader began to feel the heat. In walked Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the quintessential retired bureaucrat, steeped in the political moves under the mentorship of Biju Patnaik and also having a strong understanding of the forces arrayed against Naveen Patnaik. All these forces had shared the state secretariat with him, them as ministers and him as Biju Babu's numero uno bureaucrat.
Pyari transformed from being Pyari Mohan Mohapatra to becoming simply P.M., his abbreviated name either in reverence or out of fear became synonymous with power politics and public governance. Between 2000 to 2012, Naveen Patnaik "sacrificed" as many as 26 ministers from his various Governments and most of it was attributed to the advice by the all powerful "PM". Pyari Mohan ensured that all the shrewd senior leaders like Bijay Mohapatra and Dilip Ray were either thrown out of the party or silenced so severely, never to open their ambitions again. With a few masterstrokes Pyari had turned Naveen into the archetypal uni-dimensional leader of Odisha, leading the competition by many a miles.
In the last 12 years not only did Pyari Mohan become the buffer and guide for Naveen but also ensured that all bad press was attributed to him and the good to Naveen. The 2004 and 2009 elections were the handiwork of Pyari Mohan that worked to the advantage of Naveen. In 2004 the BJD stuck to a ticket sharing formula with the BJP and the negotiations were essentially carried out silently by Pyari which resulted in the BJD obtaining enough numbers to form a Government on its own. But again Pyari using his sharp skills ensured that the BJP was part of the Government. The reason was to emerge much later by 2009. Pyari Mohan had always been wary about the right wing BJP as an ally given his leftist leanings from student days. However, the Kandhamal anti-minority violence by various sections of VHP and Bajrang Dal pushed the thinking Pyari to convince Naveen on parting ways with the BJP in 2008 itself. The idea was to deflect international attention on Odisha as a troubled state as well as to protect the secular image of Naveen Patnaik and BJD. Secularism had been the strong strain which Biju Patnaik had held dear to his heart throughout his political career and the same essence was seen in Naveen and Pyari. Using the short time at their disposal, between October, 2008 to March, 2009, Pyari Mohan launched a silent operation to convert the BJP organizational bases into BJD organizational structures. Thus, while districts like Keonjhar, Mayubhanj, Balasore, Sundargarh, Deogarh, Nabarangpur, Sonepur, Angul and Dhenkanal had been traditional BJP strongholds, Pyari Mohan ensured that these BJP units either transferred their allegiance to BJD or were shut down using other resourceful measures. Thus when Pyari Mohan gave Naveen the go ahead to announce the break-up of alliance between the BJD and the BJP on a late evening in the presence of several BJP leaders like Chandan Mitra, the word had from Pyari had been – "don't worry, the alliance breakup and resultant vote share shifts have been taken care of." The 2009 elections were a coup de grace for Pyari-Naveen duo. While pollsters were predicting a hung assembly, Pyari declared to the amusement of one and sundry that BJD would win hundred seats plus. Even Naveen privately would have had a good laugh over a single malt scotch on such a prediction. But when the results came, BJD had won 103 seats, virtually wiping the opposition in the state. This was the beginning of the downturn in the relationship between Naveen and Pyari Mohan. Success is sweet but absolute success has its side effects. Many senior leaders within the BJD had been regarding Pyari Mohan as an eye-sore, either due to his undue influence or his absolute demand of subservience from one and all which did not go down well with other senior leaders. In the last two years many senior leaders were slighted by Naveen , namely Damodar Rout and Pradeep Maharathi among others. But the last straw was the resignation of Naveen's Doon School old-buddy A.U.Singh Deo from his post as Minister of Excise impacted by the scam on spurious alcohol in medicine supplies in Cuttack. Further accentuation was Raja Swain's victory in Athgarh, came as a shot in the arm of Naveen and a body blow to Raja's bęte noire Pyari Mohan.
A strong lobby comprising of A.U.Singh Deo, Baijayant Panda, Kalikesh Singh Deo, Damodar Rout, Pradeep Maharathi, Ranendra Pratap Swain and backed by Naveen's sister Gita Mehta, brother Prem Patnaik and nephew Barun Patnaik became a massive influence on Naveen's mindset for decision-making. This led to further alienation of Pyari Mohan from Naveen . The decision of Naveen to go it alone in the Panchayat elections bore excellent results which convinced Naveen and his coterie that life without Pyari was a distinct possibility.
Combined with all these aspects was another major factor, the growing prominence of Pyari Mohan in grassroot politics and increasing open proximity and allegiance showing of several ministers and MLAs with Pyari Mohan at his Saheed Nagar residence. As television channels keep beaming live updates on the continuing Pyari-Naveen saga this afternoon, the question arises; is this the beginning of the end of Pyari-Naveen fairy-tale story, a proverbial rags-to-riches story in political life. The heart believes so but the mind refuses to believe. Pyari has had the unique tact of pulling a rabbit out of the hat before every election. Is this the rabbit which he has pulled out of the hat to later put it back before 2014? Is this a diversionary tactic or a well-thought out strategy. Has PM taken exception to Naveen's snub or is this another chapter before the climax of 2014 state elections. Let's leave it on time to tell. But as of now the question still persists. Is this the beginning of the end of Naveen and Pyari Mohan's symbiotic relationship?
[Dr.Sasmit Patra is a Faculty of Business Management at a University in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh and has active interest in Odisha politics. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org]