Casual visitors to Bhubaneswar, the administrative centre of Odisha, may be struck by its resemblance to the company towns that sprung up in the 1950s and 1960s when space was not an unaffordable luxury. Its remarkably well-maintained grand public buildings — the secretariat, the high court, the assembly, et al —reflect the unbridled optimism and the aesthetics of the 1950s. Its rows of whitewashed official accommodation for the upper echelons of the bureaucracy, ministers and members of parliament are generously spacious but do not exude the imperial arrogance of the bungalows of the British raj. And, to add to the enlightened ‘bush shirt’ ambience of a disappearing age, there are many tastefully landscaped public parks, at least two outstanding museums (including the Natural History Museum which, last week, unveiled the 47-feet-long skeleton of a Baleen whale that had beached in Gopalpur) and the Rabindra Mandap which hosted performances by Shubha Mudgal and the Carnatic vocalist, T.M. Krishna, last week.
In the past 15 years, a non-official Bhubaneswar has also emerged, driven by the brash energy of information technology companies and private educational institutions. With the mining boom having produced a visible spurt in consumer spending, Bhubaneswar now conveys the image of a purposeful city, one that has easily overtaken neighbouring Cuttack in the surge to modernity. Compared to India’s booming metros, Odisha’s capital may be a relatively small town but it has long discarded the image of being a sleepy town.
There is a quiet, understated regional pride that permeates today’s Odisha but which is not often appreciated in the citadels of metropolitan derision. Thanks to a drastic overhaul of the state’s finances which has seen chronically deficit budgets being turned into surplus, Odisha is no longer dependent on the Centre’s charity for everything. This has meant that the chief minister does not have to constantly rush to the national capital begging bowl in hand. Elaborate welfare schemes, such as the Rs two per kilogram rice scheme for the poor, the special assistance for the Kalahandi-Bolangir-Koraput region and programme for rural housing, can be financed from the state’s own exchequer, a detail that adds to the state’s self-esteem.
The extent to which a well-functioning and stable government can both empower and boost the self-confidence of a people is often not fully grasped by the metropolitan mindset. The perception of Odisha as a backwater that can either be taken for granted or used as a toy, regrettably, still exists. The only difference is that Odisha now refuses to be taken for granted.
A recent controversy, relatively small in nature, highlighted the change. This week, a minor storm erupted over the decision of the governor, in his capacity as the chancellor of the Ravenshaw University in Cuttack, to award an honorary doctorate to a notable from Delhi whose connections to Odisha were both tenuous and, it later emerged, somewhat contentious. Following protests, the honour was withdrawn. But, the governor, it emerged, had made a habit of doling out honorary doctorates from local universities, where he is the chancellor, to friends in the legal profession in Delhi. So blatant was the cronyism that special convocations of Utkal University and Sambalpur University were held at Odisha Bhavan in New Delhi because some of those who had been honoured did not bother with the convocations in Odisha.
That the discretionary powers of Delhi’s foremost representative in Bhubaneswar is now called upon to account for his flights of whimsy may appear surprising to those who still cling on to patronizing stereotypes of ‘simple’ Odiyas who can be taken for a ride. The surprise is unwarranted. For over a decade, the state has elected a regional party to power, each time with a thumping majority. Unlike the 1980s and 1990s, when Biju Patnaik and J.B. Patnaik alternated as chief minister and kept Odisha very much in the purview of national politics, the story has undergone a major modification.
Naveen Patnaik, the political innocent who was thrust into public life in 1997 after Bijubabu’s death, has no doubt built on his father’s formidable legacy. But whereas the larger than life Bijubabu always had one eye firmly focused on national politics, his political heir has progressively eased himself out of a battlefield where he was only a bit player. When he was elected to the Lok Sabha from Aska in a byelection in 1997, Naveen had fought on a Janata Dal ticket. By 1998, he dispensed with the national party which was in a shambles and established the Biju Janata Dal, a regional party. Although he joined the National Democratic Alliance and had an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Odisha, he extricated himself from that entanglement in 2009 and won a spectacular third-term victory. Unlike Gujarat and Karnataka, where the BJP had successfully marginalized the remnants of the old Janata Dal, Naveen obliterated the BJP in Odisha.
At one level, Naveen has demonstrated a ruthless streak. At every step along his political journey, he has brushed away potential challengers inside the party and banished them into the wilderness. Odisha is littered with the political corpses of grandees who underestimated the political dexterity of the chief minister. The latest was Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the proverbial juju man of Odisha politics. His coup attempt in May was snuffed out by public outrage. Naveen, away in England when the conspirators struck, was victorious in absentia.
However, my contention is that while Naveen’s guile and his reputation for personal integrity may have played its part in ensuring his dominance over the BJD, his political longevity owes much to the wider shifts in Odisha’s public consciousness. The chief minister has perfected the art of the regional party. Although personally a cosmopolitan who is naturally at ease in the most rarefied of circles on both sides of the Atlantic, not to speak of Lutyens’ Delhi, his political priorities are determined solely by his state. If there is a national intervention, it is because there is an Odisha dimension to it.
Delhi was always unfamiliar territory to a state where media consumers account for only 65 per cent or so of the population. By narrowing the focus of concerns to what happens in Bhubaneswar and the districts, Naveen may well be accused of enhancing the provincialization of his state. However, the truncation of political boundaries can also be viewed as evidence of greater empowerment. What the average, concerned citizen of Odisha thinks of the goings-on in Delhi’s North and South Blocks has no impact. But his perceptions have a direct bearing on Bhubaneswar. By prioritizing the local over the national, Naveen has offset the sense of despondency and alienation that would otherwise have crept into one of India’s most backward states. By making democracy provincial, Naveen has, ironically, enriched it substantially.
In recent months there has been intense speculation over how the BJD will conduct itself in the event of a hung Parliament in 2014. It is hazardous to prophesy the options Naveen will exercise, apart from saying that he will not support a Congress-led formation. But judging from the regional mould in which he operates, my guess is that he will prefer to also stay out of any NDA regime. He will be content observing from the sidelines and bargaining fiercely for local benefits. Those anxious for his party’s participation must make him an offer so magnificently attractive that refusing it would mean letting Odisha down.
The only effective pressure point for Naveen will be from below, from a people who, after 15 years, have the self-assurance to play on the national stage as citizens who matter.