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No place for Patnaik in new-look Congress

Bhubaneswar, Sept. 3: Two years ago, former Orissa chief minister and veteran Congressman J.B. Patnaik had remarked that the word “retirement” did not exist in his dictionary.

Today, he stands alone at the crossroads, unable to make the choice between bowing out with dignity and trying to resuscitate a political career that has long run out of steam.

Indeed, Patnaik has very few friends left in the Congress. Younger members in the PCC rarely, if ever, consult the 75-year-old leader on important issues.

The high command, too, does not see him as anything more than an ageing party mascot.

AICC general secretary Kamal Nath, in-charge of Orissa affairs, was recently quoted as saying that Patnaik’s days as a politician were over. “J.B.’s leadership is a thing of the past. Sarat Patnaik is the present and the future of the Orissa unit of the Congress,” he said.

The former chief minister, who was at the helm of affairs in the PCC till late last year, had to make way for Sarat Patnaik — a former MP from Bolangir — at the behest of Sonia Gandhi. Patnaik loyalists who held key portfolios were sidelined one by one. Members of the rival camp took over as presidents of the Youth Congress and the Mahila Congress.

Justifying the change of guard, Kamal Nath said the high command was merely trying to rejuvenate the party by giving younger leaders greater responsibility.

However, Patnaik, who is a permanent invitee to all meetings of the Congress Working Committee, is not one to give up easily. Die-hard supporters of the veteran politician say that their leader is accustomed to making comebacks and was certainly capable of one last hurrah.

Instances of Patnaik springing surprises on his rivals are many. In 1995, Giridhar Gamang had been projected as the Congress’ candidate for the chief minister’s post, but it was Patnaik who assumed the reins of power.

Though he is no longer as powerful, Patnaik has not allowed his successor in the PCC to have his way all the time. This has led to several showdowns between the two camps in the state party headquarters here.

Sarat Patnaik, however, appears to be slowly coming into his own with a little help from Kamal Nath, who has asked all party members to back their new leader.

Wary of incurring the AICC leader’s wrath, some of Patnaik’s supporters have already switched allegiance, albeit grudgingly. Former Youth Congress president Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra is one of them.

Given the circumstances, Patnaik can be expected to do a rethink on the retirement option soon.

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