Naveen Patnaik : Rise of the accidental Chief Minister

As Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik completes 20 years in office, the state government is scripting another chapter in a series of developmental programmes for the state, this time focusing on knowledge-based industries and manufacturing





Odisha was in darkness when the world was celebrating the dawn of a new millennium in 2000, says R Balakrishnan, an IAS officer who was then posted in Odisha. A cyclone had uprooted electricity poles and millions of trees; it had destroyed homes, swept away entire villages and killed over 10,000 people. In the preceding years, the parched district of Kalahandi in south-west Odisha had become globally infamous as a symbol of starvation, malnourishment and poverty. It was under these circumstances that the state had elected Naveen Patnaik as chief minister (CM). A man who, until then, had lived in the US, written three non-fiction books, and was a reluctant inheritor of the political legacy of his father, Biju Patnaik.“People’s self-confidence was at its lowest when Naveen Patnaik took over. The rest of the country bracketed Odisha as a backward state suffering from starvation, poverty and natural calamities,” says Balakrishnan, now an advisor to the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). “In the last 20 years, breaking those stereotypes has been this man’s greatest achievement.”

At 74, Patnaik is today one of the longest-serving CMs in India. Through consistent welfare schemes, a clean governance image, sidestepping controversies and following development narrative, his party Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has defied anti-incumbency and people have re-elected him for five consecutive terms. In the 2019 Assembly elections, the party secured 113 out of 147 seats; the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a distant second with 23 seats.

Patnaik commemorated 20 years in office on March 5. In an exclusive interaction with Forbes India at his residence in Bhubaneswar, he admits that the longevity of his tenure has helped sharpen his focus over the years. An important principle, he says, is to consider winning elections as just a byproduct of the work that a party is supposed to do for people.

He has now started planning ahead, which is evident in the first political appointment he has made after being re-elected as party president for the eighth consecutive term. In March, he elevated Pranab Prakash Das to the post of organisational secretary, which means the 45-year-old Jajpur MLA will be second-in-command after the CM on taking decisions about the party’s organisational affairs. Patnaik, however, continues to dismiss talks of succession planning, maintaining that “the BJD’s successor will be chosen only by the people”.

“When we came to power 20 years ago, the state was known for its bad disaster management, high poverty level and corruption. We have now set global benchmarks to handle disasters, have lifted 8 million people above the poverty line, and are known for our transparency,” he says. His vision for the next few years, Patnaik explains, is to “take Odisha to the next level.

What he means is that besides concentrating on the minerals that the state is rich in, the BJD is setting ambitious new benchmarks to push tourism, heritage and sport. A step further in this plan of action will be to diversify and remodel Odisha as a destination for knowledge-based industries like technology and financial services; or, as certain senior officers of the CMO call it, “creating policy measures for the new world economy”.

The state budget presented in February pegged Odisha’s Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP) for 2019-20 at ₹533,822 crore, an increase of 7.7 percent over the previous year. The budget estimated a revenue surplus of ₹9,509 crore in the next financial year. According to Patnaik, the renewed focus on industry and manufacturing is expected to add further impetus to Odisha’s revenue generation capacity.