Though not made a functionary of the ruling Biju Janata Dal yet, there is little to doubt that the former bureaucrat will hereafter publicly dabble in politics.
Odisha has more than 200 serving IAS officers, but it is only one of them who is hogging all the headlines.
Ever since the news broke late Monday night that V. Karthikeyan Pandian – chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s trusted secretary for more than a decade – has taken voluntary retirement, the 49-year-old 2000-batch civil servant has taken centre-stage once again. There is renewed speculation as to what his role could be, post-retirement.
Appointed hours later as chairman of two Odisha government initiatives with a cabinet minister rank, the latest development is a sure sign that Pandian’s journey in public life is set for a fresh and frenzied start.
Though not made a functionary of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) yet, there is little to doubt that Pandian hereafter will publicly dabble in politics – something that he did earlier only furtively.
Also, by virtue of being the closest confidant of the ageing chief minister, he will be seen as Patnaik’s possible successor.
Whether Pandian ultimately succeeds or not is an altogether different matter.
Under normal circumstances, few would have given Pandian very little realistic chance. A Tamilian by birth who came to be posted in Odisha only after marrying an Odia IAS officer, Pandian’s ‘outsider’ status should have ordinarily ruled him out for the state’s top elected post.
But Odisha in the past decade or so has witnessed a rather abnormal administrative arrangement. Under it, the elected CM has gradually receded to the background with all levers of state power being increasingly wielded by his secretary. It has made Pandian extremely powerful. Having packed the ruling party leadership with his men, his word is law. Even bureaucrats senior to him defer to him.
With both the party and the state machinery firmly under his control, the dice will be loaded in Pandian’s favour if he is to really pitch to take over the party when Patnaik exits the political stage. As social media posts in the immediate aftermath of his retirement show, there is no dearth of sycophants in the BJD. Most members of the ruling party are hailing Pandian as the new ‘messiah’ under whose leadership the state apparently will flourish and advance like never before.
Even opponents of the BJD say nothing is impossible in Odisha, a state which in the early 1960s had a Bengali chief minister in one Biren Mitra.
Also, when Patnaik himself took over as chief minister, he spoke no Odia. It didn’t stop him from ruling the state for the next two decades.
With a popular Patnaik solidly by his side, it is possible that Pandian too may manage to secure enough public acceptability.
Pandian stands to gain by quitting the IAS. Though all-powerful, he has rubbed too many senior bureaucrats the wrong way by bossing over them. These angry seniors would have made his continuation in the IAS impossible when Patnaik is not around.
Politics holds out better prospects instead.
As it is, his public profile has shot up immensely since he crisscrossed the state in recent months, hearing public grievances on behalf of the chief minister. His travels in helicopters and elaborate convoys kicked up a political controversy with critics accusing him of over-stepping his authority. But they also allowed Pandian to connect with tens of thousands of people. The message too has gone out that Pandian is trusted by Patnaik.
That is huge political capital that Pandian surely will bank upon. A bachelor, Patnaik has no designated successor. And should he ever publicly bat for Pandian, then that becomes a done deal with Pandian becoming the sole repository of all the goodwill that exists for the chief minister.
But there’s always a gap between the lip and the cup and Pandian needs to tread cautiously. Though it is for sure that men and women who will get BJD tickets to contest the 2024 elections will mostly be his chosen ones, there are surely some leaders in the party who have not taken his meteoric rise kindly. In a scenario when Patnaik is not around, they may not keep quiet and meekly accept Pandian’s leadership.
But that will be then. For now, the Patnaik-Pandian duo is succeeding in controlling the circumstances. They are creating situations and then setting the political narrative that the opposition is struggling to challenge. They have not even been able to turn the tables over Pandian’s emergence. Though Odias may not be overwhelmingly in favour of a secretary reigning supreme, they have not voiced their displeasure strongly as well. The ambivalence allows Pandian and his supporters to dream big.