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How a rebellion changed Naveen Patnaik forever

Naveen Patnaik has steered clear of ministers or politicians. He has moved on to bureaucrats

March 20, 2024 / 02:11 PM IST
Naveen Patnaik

Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a career bureaucrat, also known as “Pyari babu”, came into Naveen’s life in 1997 soon after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader landed in Odisha after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik

Regents and Rebellion have an interesting connect in the Indian context.

A regent is a person who is appointed to govern a state when the monarch is unable to do so. Regents are expected to act in the best interests of the people. But it has occurred that a regent, no matter how competent, has either gone off the rails due to ambition, ego, or just being averse to authority.

One classic example of the past is that of Regent Bairam Khan who took on Akbar. The main reason was that Bairam Khan had begun to take several decisions without consulting Emperor Akbar. Akbar’s father Humayun trusted Bairam as a loyal commander. Post his death he became the ataliq (guardian) to young Akbar who equally cherished his support. Yet, their equation unravelled after some time.

Cut to the chase, this is a story of another regent and emperor, although in a modern political context. It revolves around Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his once trusted general Pyarimohan Mohapatra.

Once their relationship unravelled, Naveen never trusted a politician again.

Naveen Patnaik has steered clear of ministers or politicians. He has moved on to bureaucrats. He finds them easy to trust, professional, willing to implement his vision, and most importantly devoid of political ambition. That explains why Odisha politicians, barring stray exceptions, feel they are being ruled by bureaucrats.

Pyarimohan Mohapatra, a career bureaucrat, also known as “Pyari babu”, came into Naveen’s life in 1997 soon after the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leader landed in Odisha after the death of his father, Biju Patnaik. Having spent almost his entire life outside the state, Naveen barely had friends in Odisha.

During Biju Patnaik’s tenure as chief minister between 1990 and 1995, Pyarimohan Mohapatra worked as his principal secretary. He did most of the heavy lifting for the legendary Biju.

Naveen had the onerous task of taking charge of a very difficult situation. He was himself a rank outsider. Besides, he could not speak Odia. It is then his mother Gyan Patnaik, advised him to seek the help of “Pyari babu.”

Like Bairam Khan did for Akbar, Pyarimohan paved the way for Naveen to step on to the throne in 2000. For that he had to checkmate another contender Bijoy Mohapatra, the chairman of BJD’s political affairs committee, just before the assembly elections.

Pyarimohan, shrewd as he was, knew Bijoy  was a challenger to Naveen. He denied a ticket  to Bijoy and had him expelled from the party. From early 2000, he advised Naveen on day-to-day running of the state.

He soon acquired a larger-than-life image in the party with bureaucrats queuing up before his 111, Shahid Nagar residence in Bhubaneswar house. He was dubbed as ‘super chief minister’ and ‘Chanakya’ of Odisha politics.  A grateful Naveen sent him to to Rajya Sabha in 2004.

The BJP was an ally of BJD, but Mohapatra convinced Naveen to dump it just ahead of the 2009 assembly polls on various grounds. Many warned Naveen it was a suicidal move but the BJD won 109 of the 147 seats in the assembly.

A cheap rice scheme for the poor, deft choice of candidates, helped BJD take over the tribal districts of undivided Koraput, Mayurbhanj, Keonjhar and Sundargarh. Dummy candidates were used in some seats to eat into rival’s votes.

But post-2009 polls, the first fissures were noticed. While Pyarimohan tried to assert himself,  Naveen asked his bureaucrats not to report to him. In 2012 panchayat polls Naveen campaigned solo. Then he announced the names of three Rajya Sabha candidates solo.

The final act of this drama reminded one of Becket - about the historic, tumultuous relationship between Henry II of England and his friend-turned-bishop Thomas Becket. It is a tale of a great friendship nosediving into tragedy.

Pyarimohan fell from grace in 2012 when he  tried to engineer a coup in the party while Naveen was away in London on his first overseas trip after becoming CM. Naveen was livid. He called him a “backstabber” and “beimaan” (traitor). The rebellion died its own death as only 33 of the 104 BJD MLAs backed Pyarimohan.

The challenger retaliated by floating his own party - Odisha Jana Morcha, but it was more or less still-born. In a back-dated interview Pyarimohan said  referring to “5/29" in 9/11 style,  his only regret was  he should not have got angry and called BJD assembly members to meet him. “I just wanted to defy Naveen Patnaik’s diktat to the BJD MLAs to not meet me. On hindsight, I should have attempted a coup and I know I would have succeeded."

I had occasion to meet Pyari Babu in New Delhi. He seemed a very benign, charming gent. He steered clear of any political Odisha chat but had strong views on “Dilli politics.” It was hard to slot him as the once blazing Chanakya who virtually ruled a key state. That no one is indispensable was pretty clear after meeting him. People change when the rug is pulled.

Pyarimohan died of lung cancer  at 77 on 19 March, 2017. As a parting gesture, Naveen stood before his casket nodding his final goodbye.

Arup Ghosh is CEO of nnis, Media entrepreneur and columnist
first published: Mar 20, 2024 02:11 pm

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