Former chief strategist, political advisor and proverbial uncle to Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Pyarimohan Mohapatra, passed away late 19 March. The 77-year-old former bureaucrat, who is credited with scripting Patnaik’s phenomenal rise in Odisha politics, died of a prolonged illness at a hospital in Mumbai.
A modern reincarnation of Chanakya, his shrewd political strategies i contributed incomparably to Naveen and Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD) dominance in the coastal state.
The guiding hand
Known for his shrewd political wizardry, Pyari Babu or ‘PM’, as he was famously known, was instrumental in helping the BJD spread its banner to every nook and corner of Odisha and take over the citadels of the Congress and the BJP.
It was his calculations that made Patnaik take crucial political decisions that eventually helped the BJD sweep every election in the state. In fact, it was he who persuaded a reluctant Patnaik to sever the party’s alliance with the BJP after the 2009 Kandhamal riots.
The former bureaucrat's near perfect assessment of the political situation was a hallmark of his career, which emboldened the chief minister in to becoming the indisputable leader of Odisha.
While Naveen cocooned himself in the comfort of his residence, the bureaucrat-politician literally ran the show for almost a decade till he allegedly tried to pull the rug from under the chief minister’s feet and organised a revolt in 2012. The attempted coup was not an isolated incident; it was a result of Pyari Babu’s growing frustration with Patnaik’s decision to break all ties with his former mentor under the influence of his new coterie that primarily consisted of Pyari haters.
When the chief minister was on his trip to London, Pyari Babu invited several MLAs to his home in Bhubaneswar in an attempt to overthrow the chief minister.
When informed about his sinister plans, a distressed Patnaik cut short his trip and returned to Odisha. Though he vehemently denied any wrongdoing, no one trusted him.
Thereafter, he was expelled from the BJD, bringing an end to a relationship that had ushered a new era in Odisha politics. Pyari Babu’s days as the Chanakya to the prince of Odisha had come to an end.
Synonymous with realpolitik
A friend, philosopher and a guide to the Odisha CM, the 1963 batch IAS officer’s brilliant political maneuverings and backroom operations helped his young protégé create history in the state. Considered to be the architect of the BJD’s electoral victories, Pyari Babu became synonymous with realpolitik and was regarded as the second power centre ever since the BJD took over in 2000.
Conducting detailed surveys of each constituency; choosing suitable candidates; funding rebels from opposition parties; fashioning exits of BJD stalwarts; using the state apparatus to intimidate opposition members; forging alliances; and attempts to turn the BJD into a cadre based party were some of his strategies that ushered Naveen Patnaik’s rise in politics.
The blue-eyed bureaucrat of Biju Patnaik, he came to Patnaik’s rescue in 2000 when the latter got lost in the strange quagmire of Odisha politics. Alien to the nuances of state politics, Patnaik learnt the tricks of the trade from this master of political trickery. It was his mother, Gyan Patnaik, who had sought the retired bureaucrat’s help in assisting her son understand the subtleties of state politics.
From there on, Pyari Babu became Pyari Uncle and the two forged a bond that would alter the face of Odisha politics for years to come.
Impressed by his intelligence and understanding of state politics, Patnaik literally handed over the party and the government to Pyari Babu since he first assumed office in 2000. Since then, no decision within the party and the government was taken without his prior consent.
“In those days, there was a famous saying that the PM (his initials) was ruling the state and not the CM,” said a senior journalist.
The way up
Pyari Babu first rose to prominence during Congress leader JB Patnaik’s tenure as chief minister from 1980-1989. He was the Secretary of Revenue and later of the Education department.
During this phase, Biju Patnaik was the leader of the opposition and he developed a likening for the bureaucrat who would keep him apprised of the policies of the state government. Their proximity eventually saw the wily bureaucrat take over as the principal secretary to Biju Patnaik when he was the chief minister from 1990-1995.
In 1997, Biju Babu died and Odisha had plunged into an abyss of uncertainty. While Congress was on a decline, the BJP was gaining substantially and most of the leaders of the erstwhile Janata Dal unit of Odisha believed that merging the party with the BJP was the only solution.
But Pyari Babu thought otherwise. He saw this as an opportunity to create a third force in the bi-polar polity.
After much deliberation with other members of the Odisha unit of Janata Dal, Patnaik announced the formation of the BJD on 26 December 1997. Soon after, the party forged an alliance with the BJP and the two fought elections together. The alliance won and Patnaik was named the chief minister.
After assuming the chief minister’s office, Patnaik summoned Pyari Babu and sought his assistance in running the government. The retired bureaucrat readily agreed, but on one condition that some of the founding members, who were also part of Biju Patnaik’s cabinet and nurtured personal ambitions, were shown the door.
Having seen most of these senior leaders from close quarters in the state secretariat during Biju Patnaik’s second term, he had a fair understanding of their politics and ambitions. It was clear to him: If Patnaik was to become the undisputed leader of Odisha and BJD, these political heavyweights had to go.
Pyari Babu was at his devious best when he choreographed the exit of two founding members of the BJD – Bijoy Mohapatra and Dilip Ray.
Much of his political wizardry was based on his understanding of the state which he grasped during his stint as the chief electoral officer (CEO) from 1983-1992. During his tenure as the CEO, he understood the electoral dynamics of the state and how political parties used different strategies for political gains.
The use of surveys to predict the mood of the electorate became his ultimate weapon, which he would often use after joining hands with Patnaik. Based on his detailed assessment, the Odisha CM took some of the most crucial decision of his political career.
The Kandhamal effect
In 2008, BJP and other right wing groups began pushing their communal agenda in parts of Western Odisha, especially Kandhamal, targeting Christians on the pretext that Christian missionaries were converting and exploiting poor tribals of the region.
Then on 23 August 2008, Maoists killed Swami Laxmananda Saraswati, a right-wing leader and his supporters went on a rampage. Close to 38 people died in the ensuing violence which forced thousands to flee and take refuge in relief camps.
The horrors of Kandhamal put a question mark on Patnaik’s secular credentials and he was criticised by the media and intelligentsia for letting right wing forces unleash terror in the state.
Under pressure, Patnaik condemned the attacks on minorities, which he said had “horrified the entire world”. His association with the BJP came under severe criticism and for the first time since 2000, all was not well with the alliance.
The chief minister was in a dilemma; he didn’t want to be seen as a complicit in the killings of Kandhamal. But he was yet not sure whether the BJD would repeat its electoral success minus the BJP. The assembly and Lok Sabha elections were just around the corner, which made it even harder for the CM to go all alone.
It was Pyari Babu who then suggested waiting for the results of the 2008 municipal elections, which the two alliance partners fought on their own. The results were a major setback for the BJP, which was virtually wiped out from its strongholds in the western Odisha’s tribal belt where it injected large doses of communal poison. The BJD won the highest number of seats instilling confidence in the BJD chief to look at a future without the BJP.
Political pundits in Odisha claim that Pyari Babu’s image took a major beating after the coup and that he is now perceived as a villain of sorts. Many still find it hard to believe that a seasoned politician like Pyari Babu could attempt a coup – one which nothing short of a political suicide.
Questions remain: Why did the master strategist concede this sloppy self goal and play out his script in the penetrating gaze of the media? Why did he commit political hara-kiri when he could have congregated his supporters in a hotel and taken them straight to the governor.
Or was it a well-planned move to bow out from the party with his head held high before he was shown the door?