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Derided as political novice, now going on 16

Bhubaneswar, Dec. 25: He is clean, comes across as a doer, is not given to rhetoric, was a greenhorn when he came, fell out with a mentor but has held his own in the crafty corridors of politics.

But he is not Arvind Kejriwal.

Meet Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, once derided as a political novice, now a master strategist on the verge of guiding the party he floated into its 16th year — 13 of them in power.

Naveen, son of former chief minister Biju Patnaik, had founded the Biju Janata Dal named after his late father on December 26, 1997. It turns 16 tomorrow, looking stronger and more confident than any of its rivals of winning the vote next year too.

Its leader, in the final year of his third term, has so far managed to keep anti-incumbency at bay, if the results of the recent rural and municipal elections are any indication. But what is significant is his clean image despite the string of scandals that hit his government in the past four years.

Like Kejriwal, who wears his weed-out-corruption zeal on his sleeves, Naveen’s public image presents a sharp contrast to the stereotypical politician high on rhetoric and low on performance.

If the Aam Aadmi Party chief wears a white cap, Naveen, the unassuming bachelor, is invariably dressed in crumpled kurta-pyjamas. For the masses, he is Delhi-bred-socialite-turned-“aam aadmi” who empathises with them.

The similarities don’t end there. Kejriwal, set to take over the reins of Delhi on Saturday, has fallen out with his mentor Anna Hazare, who had disapproved of his decision to contest elections. Naveen faced a revolt within his own party led by friend-turned-foe Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, former aide to his father.

But Naveen has not only survived, the flurry of welfare schemes he unleashed has heightened his popularity. A huge chunk of underprivileged voters have turned decisively in his favour, one reason being the rice they now get at Re 1 a kilo. The scheme costs the exchequer around Rs 1,000 crore a year.

The BJD has further cemented its position with pensions totalling Rs 729 crore under the Madhu Babu Pension scheme. The government has also been distributing free umbrellas and blankets among the poor.

Naveen has kept all sections happy, doling out funds to youth clubs, galvanised alumina sheets to the poor to refurbish their dwellings and providing land rights to the landless under the Mo Jami-Mo Diha scheme.

But it hasn’t been a smooth ride. Last year, Naveen faced the revolt led by Mohapatra who now heads the Odisha Jan Morcha.

The government was also rocked by a number of scandals with Naveen being accused of turning a blind eye to the alleged loot of the state’s mineral resources, chiefly iron ore and manganese. The Opposition also sought to put him in the dock for recommending coal blocks in favour of private companies at the cost of state-run companies, but it is yet to come up with anything concrete against the chief minister.

Naveen has hit back at his critics, saying his recommendations on coal block allotments were made keeping the state’s interests in mind as Odisha needed value addition to its mineral wealth.

There is, however, growing speculation on what the stand of his government would be on the findings of the Justice M.B. Shah Commission that probed the cases of illegal mining in the state. Sources said the commission had come across large-scale irregularities but the silver lining for Naveen could be that the panel has refrained from pointing fingers at politicians.

The BJD government’s success in containing the damage from Cyclone Phailin, which lashed the state in October, has been another feather in the chief minister’s cap. Even the UN praised the government’s efforts. “His work has earned him the confidence of people even in remote villages,” said BJD vice-president and panchayati raj minister Kalptaru Das.

Congress leader Narasingha Mishra is not convinced. “What the chief minister claims to be his achievements are actually central schemes hijacked by him,” Mishra said.