PRESENT TENSE: Naveen Patnaik and P.M. Mohapatra at a meet in March
Mutter the words Pyarimohan Mohapatra to any Bhubaneswar cabbie and you are promptly transported to the second most famous address after the chief minister’s residence in the Odisha capital. Mohapatra, 72, is a retired bureaucrat who claims to have the energy of a 27-year-old. For a decade, he was chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s trusted lieutenant. Not anymore. He was suspended on June 1 from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) for allegedly trying to oust Patnaik.
Patnaik is said to have become suspicious of Mohapatra three months ago when an associate in Delhi told him about “stealthy” discussions between Mohapatra and Congress leaders. (Both the Congress and Mohapatra deny having held talks to dislodge Patnaik.)
Patnaik was unavailable for comment, but sources say his relationship with Mohapatra had “soured” in recent times over many issues. The last irritant was when Patnaik opted for Ranendra Pratap Swain as the party candidate in the March 2012 Athgarh by-election — despite Mohapatra’s opposition. Swain won by more than 47,000 votes.
Though the party has rallied around Patnaik since the coup — which apparently failed because the Congress high command refused to back the rebel — the chief minister, according to those in his camp, believes Mohapatra still enjoys the support of 30-35 party MLAs. “He has sacked some ministers but he can’t afford to take action against 35 MLAs. He can only deny these MLAs tickets in the 2014 Assembly election,” a party insider says.
Debaashish Bhattacharya asks Rajya Sabha MP Mohapatra some probing questions.
Q: I have come to hear your life story.
A: Oh! The usual media trick to take somebody on an ego trip and then thak (he puts his finger to his throat).
Q: When did your differences with the chief minister start?
A: In 2009. An MLA who had an unhealthy hold over him poisoned his mind. He kept telling him that I could make off with his chair since he had allowed me to pick most of the candidates. But if I had wanted to grab his chair, why had I helped install him there in the first place?
Q: And then?
A: I earned his displeasure in 2010 when the state council elected him as president. When party leaders eulogised him, I complained about grassroot corruption and bureaucratic arrogance. He was offended. He felt I was acting like a guardian ticking him off.
Then somebody put up pictures of us in Tangi during an election earlier this year. My picture was bigger than his. He was furious. My photo was torn down right there. (Members of the Patnaik camp broadly confirm this, but Patnaik’s version could not be directly ascertained.)
From March, party MLAs virtually stopped visiting me after they were told that CCTVs had been installed in my place and that phone conversations with me were being tapped. (The chief minister’s aides staunchly deny this.)
Q: When did you last meet him?
A: On April 17 in his Delhi house. We talked for nearly 90 minutes. But he avoided answering my questions.
Q: Why did you strike when he was abroad?
A: Some 46 party legislators wanted to see me. I asked them to come in small groups from 4pm and 9pm on May 29. I listened to their grievances and tried to calm them down, saying I would take the issues up with the chief minister.
Q: Was it a failed coup?
A: These MLAs came in batches, spent 30-45 minutes with me voicing their grievances and left. If this is a coup, I will do it again and again.
Q: What did the chief minister say when he phoned you from Europe?
A: He wanted to know why I had called meetings of legislators. He said, “Oh, you are trying to take over.” I said, “Think what you like.”
Q: Are you politically ambitious?
A: I have no political ambition, but I come from a political family. My late father Kalicharan Mohapatra was a district Congress chief and close to former Odisha chief minister Harekrushna Mahatab.
Q: So politics is in your blood.
A: I was eight when I entered politics. I was influenced by a communist family friend who launched a young communist league. In Class VIII, I started the first school branch of the undivided communist party’s All India Students’ Federation.
Q: But you went on to join the Indian Administrative Service…
A: I wanted to be a journalist like the late Chanchal Sarkar when I was doing my masters in economics in Allahabad. But The Statesman never responded to my application for a job. Then my father pushed me into the civil services after my mother died. I joined the IAS in 1963.
Q: How did your association with Biju Patnaik start?
A: I was principal secretary to the late chief minister from 1990 to 1994. He had an open mind. He would let you argue with him on any issues. He accepted your viewpoint if you convinced him.
Q: When did you first meet Naveen Patnaik?
A: At Odisha Bhawan in Delhi in 1992. He had come to see Biju babu who was unwell. We smoked together and talked about the Delhi weather. Then, in December 1997, Naveen babu asked for help when he formed the BJD. I remember telling him that he was Biju babu’s son and that the people of Odisha did not look at him just as an MP, which is what he was then.
Q:And what did he say?
A: He replied that he had spent many years in polite society but never found genuine laughter or tears there, which he said he’d found in Odisha.
Q: What did you do after Patnaik became chief minister in 2000?
A: He started seeking my advice on administration. I was a voluntary, honorary consultant. My agreement with him was that I would operate from home by phone. In the past 12 years, I may have gone to the secretariat four times at best. I have been to the chief minister’s office only once.
Q: But you went to [his residence] Naveen Niwas regularly.
A: Not really. I would have perhaps eight dinners with him in a year. When you have telephones, why do you need to see him in person?
Q: What was your role in the 2004 Assembly elections?
A: I made panchayat-wise plans to break Congress votes. I had also persuaded him to give one-third of the tickets to newcomers, mostly youngsters. Naveen babu was so impressed with my predictions that he let me handle the party — “outsourced” it to me, as he said jokingly. He is a very humorous person. He also sent me to the Rajya Sabha in 2004.
Initially, he depended solely on me. But gradually, he started getting to know officers and developed his own views. He usually sought my opinion along with that of his chief secretary and principal secretary. He may have taken my views more seriously. He knew my commitment to his father. He felt he could trust me.
From 2004, party work and public grievances largely fell to me. A lot of people came to meet me. I have 30 separate files for as many collectors and files for each government department.
Q: What was your role in the 2004 Assembly elections?
A: I am an MP. I am also a member of the BJD executive committee. If people come to me with grievances, do you expect me to ignore them?
Q: But had Patnaik asked you to do all this?
A: The chief minister had full knowledge of what I was doing.
Q: But many in the party thought you were acting like a “super chief minister”.
A: They came to me because they got a response. Also, the chief minister was not going to his grievance cell regularly.
Q: But Patnaik feels you were trying to undermine his position as chief minister.
A: He is saying all this now. He’d said absolutely nothing against me in the past.
Q: Did you persuade him to part with the BJP in 2009?
A: Our vote share had declined from 31 to 27.5 per cent from 2000 to 2004. Then, the communal trouble in Kandhamal in 2006 and 2007 happened. I managed to convince him [to break with the BJP] just before the 2009 election.
Q: As a Patnaik confidant, you perhaps have inside information. Are you going to part with any?
A: He knows I have some ethics which I don’t violate. But you never know. When driven to the wall ethics could take a back seat. But that is then.
Q: That point hasn’t still come?
A: Of course not. I am not politically dead yet.