Chief minister and Biju Janata Dal (BJD) president Naveen Patnaik, who has been travelling across Odisha in a special election vehicle ahead of the state assembly and Lok Sabha elections, spoke to Padma Rao Sundarji at his home in Bhubaneswar about what makes him popular, being equidistant from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, and why he is confident that his government will be re-elected in 2019. Edited excerpts:
From a political novice to one of the country’s longest-serving CMs, you have now been in power for nearly two decades and never lost an election. Opinion polls show that the BJP is making strides in Odisha, but people still back you as the CM. What explains your popularity?
Our government has been pro-poor, progressive and people-oriented. We have lifted about 80 lakh people out of poverty — Odisha has had the sharpest drop in the country. Be it our Mamta scheme for mothers, or Jaga for urban slum-dwellers, our initiatives are progressive and their main focus is the people. And if acts have to be amended, we do that as well.
You are facing a twin challenge: simultaneous polls to the Lok Sabha (Odisha has 21 seats) and the state assembly (147 seats). Which are you focussing on and why?
I don’t quite look at it that way. The trust of people is holistic. So we’ll try to do well in both of course.
You are being seen as a kingmaker since you won big in the last elections both in the Lok Sabha and the state. If one of the big national parties asks for your support, will you offer it?
Sure. We’ve made that clear in our manifesto. We will support whoever commits to fulfilling the just needs of Odisha. Having said that, I repeat: we are equidistant from both the BJP as well as the Congress.
You allied with the BJP between 1998 and 2009 and left after the riots in Kandhamal. The fringe groups of the BJP blamed for the violence are still there. Are they the main reason for your reserve from the BJP?
Absolutely true, yes.
Is that why you told a television channel that PM Modi does not deserve a second term ?
I have never ever commented on individuals in politics and neither did I do so to the channel in question. I was talking about the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and its failure to tackle farmers’ issues and unemployment, not about Mr Modi.
What do you think of Mr Modi? And should the NDA get a second chance?
I think of Mr Modi as a very hard-working person. And look, the people of India are intelligent enough – a second term for the NDA or not, is for them to decide.
You supported Mr Modi by staging a walkout during the no-confidence motion last year.You also supported demonetisation.
Yes. We absolutely supported demonetisation because it was a good move against black money. But one that was implemented so badly that a lot of people suffered.
The BJP’s popularity seems to have grown. Has it replaced the Congress as your main rival?
To an extent, yes…
Would you be inclined to support the Congress then? Merely because the BJP has become a larger threat to the BJD?
Our party has always been an anti-Congress party and certainly still remains one. We’ve never been too close to the Congress or supported it in any way.
But what about the Mahagathbandhan (grand alliance)? You’ve been part of a Third Front in 2009. What makes you hesitant to hop on board a similar alliance now – the fact that it’s led by the Congress?
You know, we’re quite self-sufficient in Odisha. So we don’t have to join a coalition. After the elections – wherein, it is said, that no party will get an absolute majority — we will support the party /parties which will do the maximum to meet Odisha’s demands… Of course, on national issues, we support whatever is beneficial to the country…
Many people I speak to in Odisha say there is corruption in Odisha’s bureaucracy….
We’ve always tried to run a transparent and honest government.These are only rumors. We are known for our transparency.
One of your demands is special category status for Odisha. Your government has achieved a lot for the state, as you point out, even without any special status. Why do you need it at all?
We maintain a growth rate higher than the national average and we have made a huge impact in all our socio-economic indicators. From a foodgrain-deficit state – do you know we used to earlier ‘import’ rice from elsewhere? – we are now a rice-surplus state and the third largest contributor to the food security of the nation. We run a very successful, self-help group scheme for the economic and political empowerment of women called Mission Shakti. Then there’s Kalia, our special scheme for farmers, sharecroppers and landless labourers.
Further, we are one state which faces a major natural calamity every alternate year because of geographical reasons. In the past, we mismanaged such disasters. But now, we have set international benchmarks on managing calamities, so much so that even the United Nations has complimented us.
Now, take a look at all the major central subjects like railways, banking, telecom. Has Odisha received its fair share? No. Odisha is at the bottom. This is only because of the historical neglect the state has faced… Why, during calamities, the Centre doesn’t even bother to send its leaders…
You grew up in one of India’s most illustrious political families so can you tell us what has changed between politics then and now?
Much has changed. People are more ruthless, less principled, less guided by the zeal of post-Independence nation-building today. It’s difficult to say why.
Did your father, former CM Biju Patnaik, or perhaps your mother, prepare any of their three children for politics?
No, they didn’t. My father didn’t believe in nepotism. He had a very dynamic political career and it was fascinating to watch both his administration and his politics. His life was so interesting too: his actions during World War II, his role in the Indonesian freedom struggle, and so on. We in the BJD follow his principles for the development and welfare of the people.
Till 2000, you were a respected writer, a bon vivant, a globetrotter, an expert on Indian textiles and crafts. Your social circles were Lutyens-centric. Do you miss that old life sometimes?
I don’t miss it any more. I’m too busy working all day. Unfortunately, there isn’t any time to pursue my earlier interests. But I don’t regret.
You are said to be particularly keen on sports. Any particular kinds?
Hockey is very popular in Odisha… We had a global hockey event here recently and it was a great success. I believe that investment in sports is investment in youth. And that, in turn, is investment in the future. As for me, I exercise for an hour every morning without fail…
You are 73 and have no children. Who will be the heir to your legacy? Anyone within your family?
My family members have not expressed any interest. As far as succession is concerned, the people of Odisha will decide. But surely a bit early to do so ? I’ll be back in office in 2019. There’s a lot of unfinished work to tackle.