With cabinet reshuffle in Odisha, Naveen Patnaik gears up for 2024

The year was 1963. The country was just recovering from the defeat of the 1962 India-China war. The popularity of the ruling Congress was eroding. Then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was ageing. The party had lost several Lok Sabha by-polls. It was at that time, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu K Kamaraj — who was considered one of the strongest regional leaders of that era — had chalked out a formula to revitalise the Congress. On 2 October 1963, the day of Gandhi Jayanti, Kamraj had stepped down as Tamil Nadu chief minister and proposed that other Congress chief ministers and Union ministers should resign to take up organisational assignment. As many as six Union ministers — including Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram and Morarji Desai — had resigned from their posts. Similarly, six Congress Chief Ministers, including Biju Patnaik, SK Patil and Kamaraj himself, had quit. This plan, which came to be known as the Kamraj plan, had really helped the eroding Congress that time. Time and again, ruling political parties, both at the Centre and in the states, deploy the Kamraj plan. Even the plan is still sought after in Indian politics over half a century later. In April, Andhra Pradesh chief minister and YSR Congress chief YS Jaganmohan Reddy dissolved his entire cabinet and formed a new cabinet retaining some of the ministers from his previous cabinet. Those who were dropped in the cabinet reshuffle have been tasked to concentrate on the party’s organisation in the run-up to the 2024 elections. Politics is like a game of chess and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik knows it all too well. Never in the history has Odisha politics witnessed a cabinet reshuffle of this sort. On 4 June, Patnaik — who is regarded as a blue chip stock of India’s regional politics — surprised everyone by sending all his ministers in his Council of Ministers packing in what was seen as an implementation of Kamraj formula. The next day, Patnaik did a Cabinet reshuffle, re-inducting nine of them and dropping 11 others. This was the first Cabinet reshuffle of Odisha chief minister in his fifth uninterrupted term in office. The reshuffle came days after Patnaik completed three years into his fifth term as the chief minister. Moreover, Patnaik affected the reshuffle close on the heels of his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) swept the high octane Brajarajnagar Assembly by-poll. Naveen Patnaik, who is a master of political tactics and optics, knows very well what really works for him and the Cabinet overhaul was part of that very script. In a state, where women are considered as silent voters, Patnaik chose to induct five women ministers in his 21-member Cabinet. This was for the first time, women got such a sizable representation in the State Cabinet. In a well-thought-out strategy to checkmate the Opposition BJP, which has a strong base in western Odisha, Patnaik inducted as many as seven ministers from the region. However, one of the high points of Patnaik’s Cabinet reshuffle was he dropped three controversial ministers — Captain Divya Shankar Mishra, Arun Sahoo and Pratap Jena. Captain Mishra, who was a Minister of State (MoS) for Home, faces the allegation of protecting the prime accused of Mamita Meher kidnapping and murder case. Mamita, a 24-year-old lady teacher of Kalahandi had gone missing and subsequently, her charred and decomposed corpse was found buried in an under-construction stadium owned by the same institution she used to work with. Similarly, Arun Sahoo, who was holding the crucial portfolio of Higher Education and Agriculture in the last Cabinet, was allegedly protecting the prime accused in the kidnap and murder of a five-year-old girl in Nayagarh. The five-year-old girl was brutally killed and her decaying skeleton was dumped in front of her house. And Pratap Jena, who was holding the key portfolio of Panchayati Raj, Housing and Urban Development in the previous Cabinet, is one of the accused in the murder of two BJP workers in Mahanga. His name prominently figured in the FIR, along with 12 others. Time and again, the Opposition hit the streets demanding the removal of the tainted trio from their respective ministerial berth. But the chief minister chose not to play into the hands of the Opposition. In fact, Patnaik even went on to the extent of protecting the tainted trio to satiate his political agenda. But in this reshuffle, a wily Patnaik saw a perfect occasion to throw them out. Another high point of the Cabinet reshuffle is that Patnaik has brought in Pramila Mallik as Revenue and Disaster Management Minister, Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak as Food Supplies and Consumer Affairs Minister and retained Naba Das as Health Minister. A decade ago Mallik, who was working as a Women and Child Development Minister, faced the allegation of Rs 700 crore pulses scam. She was never known for taking efficient decisions. In a cyclone-prone state like Odisha, where disaster management holds the key to life-saving, Mallik’s performance would be keenly watched. Nayak’s tenure as health minister had witnessed the deaths of 70 infants in the state government-run Sishu Bhawan in Cuttack, the outbreak of Japanese encephalitis in Malkangiri that killed 60 children, the shocking visual of Dana Majhi carrying his wife’s body on his soldiers and horrific Sum Hospital fire tragedy that claimed 25 lives. Similarly, Das as the health minister is facing allegations of massive irregularities in the purchase of masks, PPE kits and other medical supplies. Gone are the days when Naveen Patnaik was known for his clean politics and tough decisions. Remember, in 2001 — a year after he took over the reins of Odisha — Patnaik sacked three important ministers in the shadow of corruption. But in the last 21 years, Patnaik’s squeaky clean image has taken a severe beating, thanks to his business-as-usual approach and his stoic silence over scandal-tainted ministers. Meanwhile, Bikram Keshari Arukh has been brought in as the Speaker of the Odisha Legislative Assembly. Arukh, who was a Forest and Environment Minister until recently, was facing the allegation of protecting the accused in the mysterious death of Assistant Forest Conservator (ACF) Soumya Ranjan Mohapatra. Even as some political observers maintain that Patnaik has axed some ministers because of their “lack of efficiency”, the reinduction of Samir Ranjan Das as Mass Education Minister proves otherwise. In the wake of COVID-19, Das was responsible for creating a whole lot of confusion regarding online/offline education and examination. The reshuffle came ahead of the Odisha chief minister’s foreign visit scheduled for the end of this month. This was Patnaik’s second foreign visit during his 22-year-long tenure as chief minister. Remember, his last foreign trip, way back in 2012, had witnessed a failed coup attempt by his erstwhile Man Friday Pyari Mohan Mohapatra? As Patnaik gets ready for his second foreign trip, the possibility of a “revolt” certainly looks remote given Odisha Chief Minister’s complete grip over the party and his government. But once bitten twice shy, an over-conscious Patnaik didn’t want to leave a scope. His reshuffle exercise of removing a set of old loyalists and bringing in a new breed of loyalists is part of that same script. For a long time, the Odisha chief minister has been facing the allegation that his government is being run by a “Council of Secretaries” instead of a Council of Ministers. Through this reshuffle, Patnaik has tried to send across an impression that his ministers themselves are “independent” and they can take decisions on their own. But those in the know of corridors of power in Odisha politics agree with the fact that Patnaik is mostly dependent on his powerful Personal Secretary V Karthikeyan Pandian, a 2000 batch IAS officer who is a native of Tamil Nadu. It is alleged that Patnaik’s Cabinet makeover has an imprint of Pandian, who also heads the additional charge of Secretary to 5T (teamwork, technology, transparency, timeliness leading to transformation) Department in the State. In fact, it was none other than Rajendra Dholakia — who was inducted as a minister of planning and convergence — who gave further credence to the allegation when he thanked both the Odisha chief minister and the 5T secretary for getting a cabinet berth. But the moot question is whether a serving senior bureaucrat of the Government of India is entitled to play a role in Cabinet reshuffle and managing the State government within the framework of the Constitution of India? “This is a Cabinet reshuffle that does not really exude a change. Most of the ministers who were given crucial portfolios are not known for their efficiency and the debutants are yet to be watched, even as some of the ministers are capable of handling their portfolios. But ultimately they all have to wait for the dictates of the 5T secretary,” said veteran journalist Pratap Mohanty. “In a government where a sole voice calls the shots on behalf of the chief minister, nothing much is expected in such a situation as in Patnaik’s Cabinet will continue to be controlled by Pandian in proxy,” he quipped. After his Cabinet reshuffle, Patnaik is now planning for an organisational revamp of the BJD. The revamp of the party’s organisation will take place post-his foreign visit, party sources said. The senior leaders who were dropped during the Cabinet reshuffle will be drafted to the party’s organisation, sources in the BJD told this writer. But the moot question is whether those who were responsible for eroding Patnaik’s popularity as ministers can help “revitalise” the party. Patnaik, a consummate politician, knows all too well that the last two years in the run up to the 2024 elections are crucial and that is why he has started the preparations well in advance. The image building exercise of his government, the Cabinet reshuffle and the ensuing organisational revamp are part of the same narrative. Even as Patnaik’s BJD is not officially part of the NDA coalition, he is the only chief minister who is regarded as a “dependable ally” of the BJP-ruled Centre and  vice versa . And that of course is being done at the cost of the state BJP, which refuses to show its vigour in fighting its erstwhile coalition partner politically. Come 2024, the BJD looks set to win hands down and Patnaik will be sworn in as the Chief Minister for the sixth consecutive term — the longest ever tenure in the country. The writer is a multimedia journalist having 17 years of experience, with 10 years in senior editorial positions. Views expressed are personal. Read all the Latest News , Trending News ,  Cricket News , Bollywood News , India News and Entertainment News here. Follow us on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram .

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