Newsmaker | Collector to Custodian of Patnaik’s Legacy, When VK Pandian Brought Odisha in Focus

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Year Ender 2023

V Karthikeyan Pandian, 49-year-old former private secretary to five-time Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, is making waves in the state political circles ahead of the 2024 assembly elections, with his every move being subjected to microscopic deconstruction by the opposition BJP, Congress and also the media.

The 2000 batch former IAS officer of Odisha cadre is no ordinary bureaucrat-turned-politician. In his capacity as private secretary to the politically astute and reticent Naveen Patnaik since the year 2011, and as 5T secretary (transformation initiatives), Pandian not only enjoys the full confidence of the chief minister but is also widely seen as the man behind the states’ many ambitious projects — be it re-casting Odisha as the ‘Mecca of Sports’ in India or re-imagining the historic 12th Century Jagannath temple in Puri.

In his Instagram handle, vkpandian.odisha, Pandian says — “Working with @naveen_odisha is a blessing!” With just 288 posts, Pandian has over one million followers. In one video while interacting with students of IIM, BITS, XIM, answering a question what motivated him to work towards 5T initiative and the birth of the idea, Pandian says, “The CM will be completing 24 years this time and he told me that we should do something substantial because the people have blessed him so much. That is where the idea came from… we should shift from change to transformation. Puri, Lingaraj are all heritage sites. In three years, we should be able to transform all the high schools, higher secondary schools and colleges so that the entire higher education will be transformed. We thought we should do something substantial for health, which no other state has done or no government has so far done. The chief minister wanted to empower poor people — their lives are also valued. The idea of transformation came because he wanted to leave a legacy and thank the people of Odisha that they have trusted him. I think I have done my bit for the state”.

Photo: By Special Arrangement

When asked how has Odisha kept the fine balance between environment and economy, Pandian says that reflects the “commitment of the leadership and the leader himself”. “Conservation is in his blood and he has infused it in all of us. We are one of the few states whose forest cover is increasing every year. Cyclone management, or Covid management or the latest train accident, all these times, Odisha did exceptionally well because of this government’s approach”.

Following the increasing opposition from the BJP and Congress to his widely publicised and well-attended public meetings across the state in 2022, Pandian opted for voluntary retirement from the coveted civil services on October 23, 2023. Importantly, the BJP-led central government even waived off his notice period, accepting his resignation within three days of his application. Pandian was almost immediately given a cabinet rank and appointed as 5T and Nabin Odisha Chairman.

A little over a month later, on Kartik Purnima — a day that holds special significance for the people of Odisha — Pandian joined the BJD on November 27 in the presence of BJD President and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik along with senior party members. Importantly, Patnaik said, “As you all know, he has been working very hard for several years for the people of our state, and has earned their respect and trust. He will continue to do so as the member of the party. I wish him all the best”. To this, Pandian said, “With the blessings of the Almighty, the guidance of the Chief Minister and your support, I will serve the people of Odisha sincerely, humbly and selflessly”.

The political messaging was unambiguous as the official induction mimicked the ceremonial passing on the baton to the unlikely inheritor of the legacy Naveen Patnaik built over a staggering quarter of a century after the death of his father and former iconic CM Biju Patnaik.

However, on December 15, after the BJD’s state executive committee meeting, scorching all speculation, the party’s senior vice-president, Debi Prasad Mishra, said Pandian has given a clarification that he will not contest the upcoming elections adding that there is no problem if he contests polls but people should refrain from spreading rumours. Later the same day, Pandian issued a statement saying he would not contest from any constituency but would stand behind Naveen Patnaik in all 147 assembly segments in Odisha. “I have no ambition for any post. I will also not contest from any constituency”.

Apprehensive of giving a handle to political opponents, both the BJD and Pandian tried to douse the rumors. Pandian is a non-Odia and his taking over the party reins would trigger a massive Odia Vs non-Odia debate in the run-up to the assembly elections. Already, the question that BJP MP Baijayant Panda and the opposition is asking, “The founder of Biju Janata Dal — Biju Patnaik — was a proud Odia, and today, his soul will be pained as will that of 4.5 crore Odia people, not one of whom was deemed fit to run the party”.

In fact, Panda was one of the first to question the growing role of Pandian in running the government almost seven years ago and this played a key role in the fraying of the once thick relationship between him and Patnaik. In recent days, another BJD leader Soumya Ranjan Patnaik almost met a similar fate when he questioned the growing clout of Pandian in the government as well as the party. A cursory glance over Patnaik’s innings would reveal he brooks no rebellion and has ruled the party with an iron hand preferring to trust bureaucrats over leaders in his party.

In his earlier role, Pandian had earned impeccable credentials. He began his innings in Odisha in 2002 as the sub-collector of Dharamgarh in Kalahandi district, moving as Collector of Mayurbhanj district in 2005 and subsequently collector of Ganjam district in 2007. His work in Odisha was recognised by the central government, with Pandian winning three National awards — one from the Ministry of Health and Family Affairs for working with persons with AIDS and two more for the district being the best performer in implementation of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. It was in Ganjam that Pandian came close to the Odisha chief minister, who moved him as his private secretary in 2011.

(Photo: By Special Arrangement)

Since then, he has played a key role in many of the flagship programmes of the Naveen Patnaik government – ‘Mo Sarkar’ roughly translated as ‘My Government’, an initiative that aims to ensure the dignity of the citizen in government offices, 5T (governance that had the marks of transparency, technology, teamwork, time and transformation), the ambitious Puri Sri Mandira Parikrama Project and the BSKY, a government initiative that guaranteed health services to ordinary people.

Pandian’s Instagram feed is packed with short videos of him interacting with Naveen Patnaik. Sometimes as short as over just two minutes — where Pandian is asking the CM, “How did the meeting with the PM go, sir?” or when he is breaking the news to the CM of the Birsa Munda hockey stadium being recognised by the Guinness Book of world record. These videos convey the comfort and proximity between the two. Similarly, Pandian is never tired of talking about Biju Patnaik and Naveen Patnaik in his speeches. For instance, in one public meeting, Pandian said, “The chief minister shared an anecdote involving the legendary Biju Babu, Biju Patnaik. That when Biju Babu was lodged in Ferozepur Jail during the freedom struggle in the early 1940s… the freedom fighters used to rejoice whenever India used to win a medal in hockey. They used to celebrate inside the British prisons. So, when India was just an idea, hockey gave an identity to Indians. When India was just an idea, hockey gave a chance to show our might to show our might as Indiana to the world. When Indian was just an idea, hockey gave us a chance to celebrate Independence before we actually celebrated Independence. That is the link between hockey, the Indian national movement and Independence”

His posts on Instagram are also related to Odisha’s majestic Jagannath temple in Puri. In fact, Pandian has been reviewing the progress of the Shree Mandir Parikrama project (Shri Jagannath Heritage Corridor) with innumerable visits, sometimes at an unearthly 4 am in the morning. The inauguration of the temple corridor is expected to take place between January 15 and January 17 next year, and is the big Naveen Patnaik offering to the people ahead of elections. The optics of the inauguration are in line with that of the Ram Temple in Ayodhya with the Odisha government extending invitations to all major temples in the state and the country. Apart from this, the who’s who in the world of politics, business, sports, entertainment are also expected to be invited.

(Photo: By Special Arrangement)

Pandian has tried to fuse his image with the making of the ambitious temple corridor and, in doing so, with everything that is associated with the beloved deity Shri Jagannath. Clearly, he is recasting himself in the mould of an Odia. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi would offer the Ram Temple in Ayodhya to pilgrims across India and the world, Naveen Patnaik will give the redesigned landscape. Unwilling to leave the “temple” space to the BJP, Patnaik has also invested massive resources in restoration and renovation of temples across the state with Pandian in charge.

Pandian courted controversy when his pictures along with that of influencer Kamiya Jani having Mahaprasada in Puri went viral, with the Odisha BJP leaders questioning Jani’s access into the 12th century holy shrine when, as they alleged, she was “known for promoting beef consumption”. Even days after Jani issued a clarification that she had broken no rules set by the temple and that she is a practising Hindu who has neither consumed beef not promoted it, the controversy refuses to die with the BJP and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) targeting the Tamilian bureaucrat-turned-politician for the fiasco.

Pandian is married to Sujata, an Odia IAS officer currently in charge of another Naveen Patnaik flagship programme ‘Mission Shakti’ with women at the forefront. And, therefore, speculations that he will have a much bigger and formal role, if not immediately then subsequently, refuse to die. BJD leaders would have one believe that Pandian’s role now is limited to ensuring that Naveen Patnaik wins a record sixth term. Like Naveen Patnaik himself, Pandian understands the nuances of power play and knows how to wield it. However, as the plethora of images show — his meeting leaders in technology, sports and business, public meetings with villagers and students, Pandian is doing his best to endear himself to the people more than anyone else. He is a man you can’t write off.

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