VK Pandian: Once said to be the political heir, now in the crosshairs of the BJP | Latest News India

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By Mahtab Ahmad

Bhubaneshwar: Until last week, he was in choppers flying across the state, lecturing thousands of people in election meetings to accompanying Biju Janata Dal president and outgoing chief minister Naveen Patnaik on roadshows as well as giving long interviews to visiting journalists over bowls of pakhala (the popular Odia dish of fermented rice and water).

VK Pandian is said to be a close aide of outgoing chief minister Naveen Patnaik (File Photo)
VK Pandian is said to be a close aide of outgoing chief minister Naveen Patnaik (File Photo)

VK Pandian, the Madurai-born 2000-batch IAS officer of Odisha cadre, who served as private secretary to chief minister Naveen Patnaik for 12 years before plunging into politics and then spearheading the regional party’s electoral campaign over last 40 days had gone to town claiming that BJD would win at least 3/4th of the seats in the 147 member assembly and 15 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats.

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The retirement

It’s history now. Five days after BJD was decimated in Lok Sabha polls failing to win even a single seat and barely winning one third of the assembly seats, conceding defeat to BJP, Pandian announced his withdrawal from active politics on Sunday.

“My aim to join politics was to assist Naveen babu and now consciously I decide to withdraw from active politics. I am sorry if I have hurt anyone in this journey. I am sorry if this campaign narrative against me has had a part to play with BJD’s loss. I apologise to the entire Biju Parivar,” said Pandian in a video message that was posted on his Instagram handle.

The announcement of withdrawal from politics came as the clamour in the ruling party went up significantly in the last five days with many senior leaders questioning the way Pandian ran the party and the election campaign.

Once, present on literally every billboard, every campaign poster, every important meeting of the Patnaik government, Pandian was conspicuously absent from Naveen Niwas, soon after polls results came in.

He was also absent on June 5 when Patnaik went to Raj Bhavan to tender his resignation and the two meetings that Patnaik held with winning and losing MLAs on two consecutive days. Two days later, he was seen leaving the domestic terminal of the Indira Gandhi International Airport with a luggage while his wife Sujata Kartikeyan, went on a six months ‘childcare leave’ to assist her daughter prepare for the Std 10 exam.

Though Patnaik on Saturday defended his protege calling the attacks against him ‘unfortunate’, the writing on the wall was clear – Pandian is the fall guy in the BJD’s biggest electoral loss in over two and half decades.

5T: The path to power

Known as 5T secretary (a government initiative that circumvented all departments making all department secretaries report to him bypassing the chief secretary) since last five years, Pandian came to wield enormous power in the state government as well as BJD as Patnaik passed on the reins to him.

Though Patnaik has been ruling the state for last 24 years, he was largely absent from state administration after the Covid pandemic broke out in early 2020. While Patnaik largely relied on bureaucracy ever since he came to power in 2000, he continued to retain some degree of control and had the final word until end of 2019 when the pandemic broke out.

Just before the outbreak, Patnaik began an initiative called ‘5T’, which stood for teamwork, transparency, technology, time and transformation and made Pandian its head. Though there was no department named 5T, all departments were supposed to have their ‘5T vision’ and thus report to the CM’s private secretary, dwarfing the chief secretary and the DGP making him the centre of governance.

Since early 2020, Patnaik was largely home-bound, administering the state from Naveen Niwas, but even after the pandemic abated, he hardly went to the Lok Seva Bhawan, the seat of power in Bhubaneswar, barely 3 km away from his home. He would make odd appearances at hockey and other sports events at Kalinga Stadium, but did not deem it fit to go to the chief minister’s office, making his residence, the de-facto office.

Absolute power

In Patnaik’s absence, Pandian was the last word in the state administration as officers several years senior to him bent backwards to please him. Senior leaders of BJD were no exception.

The speculation that Pandian is all set to become successor of Patnaik – in his 24th year of uninterrupted reign – was visible last year when he flew around in a chopper to 30 districts of the state ostensibly to collect people’s grievances. The speculations reached fever pitch in October last year when the former quit the bureaucracy and joined BJD.

After the pre-poll alliance discussion with BJP broke down in March this year, it was Pandian who decided BJD’s ticket distribution and became its star campaigner pushing 40-odd other senior leaders to the backroom. Though BJP made Odia Asmita(Odia pride) its main poll plank, attacking Pandian’s Tamil roots, Pandian brazened out all attacks on him as he went around telling everyone that BJD would win 3/4th of the seats in the 147-member Odisha Assembly as well as 15 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats.

People familiar with Pandian’s functioning say though he was an efficient and hardworking officer, things started falling apart when he started controlling access to the chief minister. Resentment in bureaucracy grew as officers several years senior to him not could not meet CM without Pandian being present. Adding grist to the rumour mills was the remark by Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma who last month during election campaign alleged that Patnaik’s digital signature was used on the files reaching him, insinuating the five time CM’s complete lack of control over administration.

Though Pandian held no position in the party, the perception among party MLAs and senior ministers in BJD grew that they had little say in the affairs of the party. With Pandian in total control of the party, a sense of neglect grew among many district presidents and secretaries who felt their voices not reaching the highest quarters.

Former CM Naveen Patnaik’s wrong call

MP Bhartuhari Mahtab, who was with BJD till March this year before joining BJP, said the last time he could meet Patnaik was in February this year for inviting him to his daughter’s wedding. A video of two senior ministers clearing the traffic for Pandian’s car in Balasore district went viral underlining the diminishing stature of party leaders. Seething in anger over the hijacking of party apparatus by an outsider, they could do little.

For a consummate politician like Patnaik who could resist the might of BJP all along, many believe it was political suicide on his part to make Pandian, a non-Odia and an outsider, his successor. Though Patnaik’s personal popularity is still intact after two and half decades of rule, it was Pandian’s Tamilian roots and the growing belief that he would be the popular chief minister’s successor that sank BJD.

Sensing public mood towards the last phase of election, Patnaik tried to do a course correction saying Pandian was not his successor. But by that time the damage was done and Patnaik had effectively sealed the fate of his party.

Waiting in the wings, a canny BJP jumped at the opportunity of Patnaik promoting a non-Odia who had hijacked the party and governance and made Odia Asmita its main poll campaign. The call of Odia Asmita reverberated through the state wiping off BJD the Lok Sabha poll map and reducing the party to 51 seats in assembly polls.

Most BJD leaders are still baffled why the party which was formed in 1997 to protect the language, culture and tradition of Odisha, was handed over to a Tamilian defying all political logic.

Few options for Pandian

Having now decided to retire from ‘active politics’, many believe Pandian will bide his time and may try to make a comeback given that Patnaik is still sympathetic to him.

Describing him as a person of integrity, Patnaik said Pandian did excellent work as an officer in many fields in the last 10 years, helping govt with two cyclones and dealing with Covid-19 epidemic in the state. But with the political momentum against him, Patnaik’s defence of Pandian holds little meaning as BJD leaders are not ready to forgive him.

In the new BJP regime, more trouble seems to be in store for Pandian who may be the subject of official investigation of alleged transgressions done during his tenure. Similar fate also awaits other officers close to him. With an unsympathetic regime in power, many are willing to believe that it could be end of the road for Pandian in Odisha politics.

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