THE CONSUMMATE NEGOTIATOR
A little over a month into his fifth chief ministership, BJD boss Naveen Patnaik has been handling the interests of Odisha as well as the nation with exemplary deftness
History has shown that great leaders are often great negotiators. Whether it be Mahatma Gandhi, who drove the mighty colonial British rulers out of India with decades-long nonviolent persistence, or it be Nelson Mandela who brought an end to the inhumanly dreadful apartheid regime in South Africa after spending 27 years behind bars.
However, some political observers and historians aver, the times have changed and such leaders no longer exist. While legendary leaders such as Gandhi and Mandela are indeed unlikely to be seen again, an argument may be made that the best political leaders of the world even today unwaveringly base their decisions and negotiations on the welfare of the common people rather than personal or party interests.
One of the finest examples of such leadership in the 21st century is that of Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal boss Naveen Patnaik. For all his uninterrupted political success over the past two decades, never before perhaps has it been more glowingly evident than last month – within days after Naveen headlined his fifth straight swearing-in ceremony.
Of course, he kicked off his latest term by promptly fulfilling two big promises that he had made earlier pertaining to the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme and Mission Shakti.
The target for KALIA beneficiaries was pushed up from 42 lakh farm families to 75 lakh, covering 92 percent of the farmers in the state. And Rs 1000 crore of government business was assured to women self-help groups under Mission Shakti. In a historically unprecedented move early last month, Naveen also instructed his newly chosen ministers to submit a monthly report on the progress made towards the implementation of BJD’s poll promises.
But that was just the beginning.
Throughout his weeklong visit to New Delhi last month, Naveen looked like a man on a mission –brimming with vision and ideas – as he put forward the urgent requirements of his state in no uncertain terms.
While addressing the fifth meeting of the Governing Council of NITI Aayog, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Naveen brought to everyone’s attention that the geo-climatic situation of Odisha made it vulnerable to frequent natural disasters.
“During the period 1900 to 2019, the state has experienced one or other disaster like flood, cyclone or drought every year. These natural calamities pose a serious challenge to our economic development,” the Chief Minister noted as he called for the inclusion of natural calamities as a criteria for according Special Category Status (SCS) to states.
Well aware of how complicated it has been so far to get the long-sought SCS nod from the Centre, Naveen even ingeniously suggested a middle ground. He proposed that all states hit by major natural disasters be designated as "Special Focus States" so as to be granted SCS benefits for a limited time period.
"This will not only help Odisha but any other state which is hit by a major natural calamity," the Chief Minister explained as he asked for Rs 5,228 crore aid, along with allocation for 5 lakh permanent houses, in view of the widespread devastation that cyclone Fani wreaked on public infrastructure, property and livelihoods in the state.
During his address, Naveen made as compelling a case as could possibly be made for his home state to deserve what it was asking for. He reminded the Governing Council that Odisha has over the past two decades progressed by leaps and bounds – from once being a food-deficient, poverty-ridden state to being a rice-surplus one that was not only one of the largest contributors to the Central pool but also saw the highest reduction in poverty among other major states across the country. From once being a helpless state that needed global aid to recover from natural disasters, Naveen continued, Odisha has set global standards in disaster management.
The BJD supremo did not stop there.
He went on to share with the NITI Aayog Governing Council his ideas for the development of the nation as a whole – from calling for women empowerment in all spheres and sectors, to stressing the importance of primary sector (particularly agriculture) in a large economy like India, to optimal utilization of water resources for bringing about a second Green Revolution in India right from its drylands, to emphasizing the need of scientific comprehensive surveys for proper conceptualisation and implementation of beneficiary-oriented schemes.
At a time when global leaders like US President Donald Trump are brazenly dismissing environmental concerns on the pretext of development, Naveen’s assertion before the Council that environmental and economic development must go hand in hand was refreshingly reassuring.
His strong suggestion for inclusion of landless labourers and sharecroppers under PM-KISAN scheme, based on the argument that poverty reduction and rural prosperity cannot be achieved without upliftment of the weaker sections of the agricultural economy, once again highlighted Naveen’s grasp over the ground realities of India.
Both during and after his Delhi visit, the BJD boss proved more than once and beyond doubt that he was more than happy to rise over party politics for the sake of his state as well as the nation.
On June 14, Naveen met Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan – one of his worst critics from the BJP camp – to discuss ways to work together for economic progress and employment generation in the state.
“We also discussed enhancing Odisha's footprints further in the steel sector. Steel will have a large influence in rejuvenating the economy in Odisha. The centre is committed to develop Odisha as a global hub of ancillary industry in the steel sector,” the Chief Minister said from the national capital.
Pradhan confirmed that Naveen had assured all cooperation in supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi's initiatives “for the holistic development of Odisha". The Odisha native also revealed that there was no political discussion during the meeting with the Chief Minister.
A few days later, the BJD president was seen lending unconditional support to the 'one nation, one election' idea proposed by the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.
At the all-party meeting of party presidents convened by Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Parliament in the national capital on June 19, Naveen stated: “Frequent elections affect the pace of development and also damage the spirit of cooperative federalism. The BJD will fully support the idea of 'one nation one election'. There has to be a give-and-take attitude in the larger interest of the country.”
"Biju Janata Dal has been always supportive of whatever is being done in the interest of country and its people, and we would continue to do so in future as well," he added.
Even more impressively, Naveen suggested that India could celebrate and honour the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi by including the uniquely Indian ideal of 'ahimsa' (non-violence) in the preamble of India's Constitution. He expressed hope that doing so will ensure that the future generations of Indians and people around the world will remember the value of the principle.
Two days later, another act of Naveen baffled some political observers and served as fodder particularly to his critics.
When the time for announcement of candidates for by-elections to Odisha’s three Rajya Sabha seats arrived, Naveen nominated three people: BJD IT Cell Chairman Amar Patnaik, BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra, and retired IAS officer Ashwini Baishnab, the BJP candidate from Odisha.
"The Prime Minister spoke to me as did the Home Minister. We [BJD] will support the candidature of Ashwini Baishnab, who was the private secretary of Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was the Prime Minister," Patnaik explained.
Yet that was hardly enough to stop the decision from becoming controversial.
Immediately accusing the BJD and BJP of having an “unholy nexus”, or some kind of secret deal for mutual political benefits, some state Congress leaders seemed determined to avenge the humiliating loss their party had suffered in the recent elections.
However, when it emerged that Naveen had earlier clarified about Baishnab being a BJP candidate to whom the BJD had decided to extend support “for the development of the state and its people”, the controversy was fast on its way to fizzling out.
Some political analysts suggested that Naveen’s decision was a sign of the BJD drifting closer to the BJP. A few claimed that there was a strong sense of intrigue, disbelief and dissatisfaction within the BJD as Naveen had apparently let down Bhubaneswar MP Prasanna Patsani and Berhampur MLA Ramesh Chandra Chyau Patnaik – two senior BJD leaders who were denied party tickets for the recent elections with assurance that they would get Rajya Sabha nominations.
But all of that remain mere speculation, with neither of the two BJD leaders in question having expressed any objection so far to their party boss’s decision.
With Naveen it seems to be all about achieving the perfect balancing act that is geared towards the greatest good, not just in the world of politics but also in the sphere of administration.
Last month, when handing appointment letters to the latest batch of Odisha civil service officers, the Chief Minister urged them to be to be patient and prudent while finding solutions to the problems of the state’s people. He sought to hammer home the notion that all government initiatives are geared towards the welfare of the all-important public.
After initiating them into his now famous 4T mantra for good governance – technology, transparency and team work for transformation – he presented an improved version of it by adding a time dimension to the equation.
Pointing out that time is the “most crucial factor”, Naveen instructed the new officers to “diligently” follow the 5T governance model in order to “measure up to the expectations of the people”.
The Chief Minister did not limit his instructions to the new recruits. Two days later, he also did the same for all senior IAS officers in his state. Speaking to them at the State Secretariat, Naveen instructed the heads of all departments to spend the first half of every Saturday deliberating on the implementation of the 5T principle with regard to his government’s policies and promises as well as to new ideas for the development of Odisha.
The Chief Minister instructed the senior bureaucrats of the state to ensure that governance at all levels – from tehsil and sub-registrar offices to government hospitals – was up to the satisfaction of the public.
Reminding all that public offices run with taxpayer money, Naveen reiterated that citizen satisfaction was the one and only true yardstick of good governance and there was plenty of scope for improvement on that front in Odisha.
Explaining further, the Chief Minister told the bureaucrats that just as he writes their performance appraisal reports, the people of Odisha write his. As both reports are supposed to be linked, both he and the officers “have to be accountable”.
He also urged all senior IAS officers across the state’s departments to work towards making Odisha’s administrative policies the best in the country. Putting it another way, Naveen stated that if the best state in the country is offering ‘X’, Odisha needs to strive for ‘X-Plus’. He also called on the officers to focus on providing employment opportunities and offer value addition that were comparable in scale to the best in the world.
After demanding a level of performance and results that few chief ministers in the history of India ever have from their officers, Naveen balanced it all out once again by doing what he did next.
The Odisha government declared last month that the fourth Saturday of every month shall be a general holiday for all state government employees. The working hours in offices functioning under it were also rescheduled in a bid to not only improve efficiency of administration but also make it more focused on citizens.
The general administration department issued a statement saying working hours in government offices will be from 10 a.m. to 5.30 p.m., with a 30-minute lunch break from 1.30 to 2 in the afternoon.
Never one to rest on his laurels, which is yet another defining quality of great leaders, Naveen took another progressive stride on the disaster management front – an area where he already has an international reputation as a past master.
While still busy getting his state back on its feet after the devastating supercyclone Fani, Naveen released a flood hazard atlas for Odisha to help his government be even better prepared in the face of natural disasters.
Designed to identify flood-prone areas of the state, the atlas – developed by Odisha State Disaster Management Authority (OSDMA) in collaboration with the National Remote Sensing Centre (NRSC), Hyderabad – is expected to go a long way in helping the government manage flood situations, which affect approximately 14 lakh hectare of agriculture land, causing extensive damage to life and property, in the state every year.
Taking into account the Indian Meteorological Department's prediction for a normal monsoon this year, which means enhanced chances of floods in the states, Naveen last month also called a state-level Natural Calamity Committee (NCC) meeting where he instructed all departments concerned to be prepared optimally for any eventuality – even for droughts.
His instructions were specific in many instances. The Water Resources department was asked to ensure there were no breaches in embankments across the state. The Rural Development department and the Housing and Urban Development department were instructed to make prior arrangements for drinking water in flood-prone areas, while the Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare department was directed to have in place adequate food materials in such places.
In view of the experience from recent cyclones such as Titli and Fani, Naveen ordered that all departments be at the highest possible levels of preparedness ahead of any imminent natural disaster so they can ensure immediate restoration of public utilities after it.
Despite these efforts, Naveen’s new innings has not been without criticism.
Soon after the NCC meeting was over, senior Congress leader Narasingh Mishra expressed strong disapproval of the manner in which it was being conducted. He suggested that the meeting was a “mere formality”, although he did not cite any reason to substantiate his claims. Yet Sudam Marandi, the Minister of Revenue and Disaster Management, assured that the state government would soon pass a resolution for effective handling of natural disasters.
Then there was this series of unfortunate events that led to the BJD come under a lot of fire from its chief rival.
When a photograph of the coffin of Ajit Kumar Sahoo – a 44 Rashtriya Rifles jawan hailing from Dhenkanal district who succumbed to a terrorist bomb attack in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district last month – draped in BJD flag went viral on social media, the opposition BJP demanded an apology from Naveen for disrespecting the sentiments of the people and the martyr’s family.
BJP national vice-president and former MP Baijayant Panda tweeted: Very unfortunate, politicising the death of an Indian soldier by the ruling party in Odisha draping his coffin with their party flag instead of the Tricolour.”
However, the BJD was quick to offer an appropriate clarification. The party’s spokesperson, Sasmit Patra condemned the incident and assured that strict “action would be taken against those involved this episode”.
The Chief Minister did not respond to the opposition rants over the issue, but he had already done what needed to be done, something that actually mattered. From the Chief Minister's Relief Fund, an ex-gratia of Rs 25 lakh for the next of kin of the deceased Odia jawan had been announced long before the controversy broke out.
Such unsubstantiated accusations and lame controversies amount to nothing but insignificant, inconsequential noise. Nothing that Naveen – with everything that he has been doing and all that he has set out to achieve as one of the nation’s greatest politicians – cannot negotiate with characteristic ease.