File photo of Naveen Patnaik | @Naveen.odisha/Facebook
File photo of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik | @Naveen.odisha/Facebook
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Odisha CM Patnaik, who has never lost an election, is known to have a strong gut feeling and ‘X-ray’ eyes

‘Oh! I’ve got a problem,’ Naveen Patnaik burst out spontaneously, before falling quiet quickly. The year was 2000. It was the evening that assembly election results were being announced and Naveen was headed for a thumping victory. He was on the way to Soochana Bhavan, the state information centre, and other television channel studios for live interviews. I was with him in his car. He was sitting in the front, beside the driver; I was in the back.

Those were the pre-EVM days and counting was still under way and results of several seats were awaited. In some, trends were known, but official announcements of who won and who lost were still to be made. As results were confirmed and friends called on my mobile, I relayed them to Naveen. X has won from here, Y has lost from there – I kept updating him.

Naveen merely listened, poker-faced. He simply soaked in whatever information I offered him. But then came the result from Pallahara, an assembly constituency in the central Anugul district, and Naveen’s ears pricked up. Naveen’s BJD had contested the elections in an alliance with the BJP and the winning candidate from Pallahara was the BJP’s Dharmendra Pradhan.

The moment I broke the news that Pradhan had won, Naveen said, ‘Oh! I’ve got a problem.’ Son of the then union minister of state for surface transport, Debendra Pradhan, Dharmendra was a little-known figure in 2000. An activist of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and a former student union leader of Utkal University, Dharmendra was contesting elections for the first time.

Nobody thought much of him and many within the state BJP felt he would, at best, have a temporary presence. Odisha, like every other state, had been replete with instances of leaders who faded into oblivion after winning one or two elections and many felt Dharmendra would be no different.

But Naveen thought differently and blurted out his concern over Pradhan’s victory in a rare moment of candour. Almost two decades later, and ahead of the twin Lok Sabha and assembly elections in 2019, the chief minister’s judgement is proving correct. The BJP is beginning to challenge Naveen’s uninterrupted reign and it is Dharmendra, now in his late forties, who is leading the charge. Having won as an MLA in 2000, Dharmendra became an MP in 2004 after successfully contesting from the Deogarh parliamentary constituency.

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Also readFrom a soft-spoken socialite to a ruthless, authoritarian leader: Naveen Patnaik’s two decades in Odisha

He suffered a setback in 2009 when he chose to contest for the assembly and lost, but by then the hardworking and ambitious Dharmendra had made enough contacts in the nation’s capital to build a successful political career.

First, he became the BJP national secretary and then the general secretary. By 2012, he was important enough for the party to arrange for him to be elected to the Rajya Sabha from Bihar. When the NDA, led by the BJP, swept the 2014 polls and Narendra Modi became prime minister, Dharmendra became the union minister of state for petroleum and natural gas with independent charge.

He has continued to be in the good books of the prime minister, who publicly commended him for delivering on ambitious Central government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana which provides subsidized LPG connections to BPL households. In 2017, when Modi expanded his cabinet, Dharmendra was promoted and made a full-fledged cabinet minister. Besides petroleum and natural gas, he now also has the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship under his command, apparently two of the prime minister’s core focus areas.

Fired partly by his own political ambitions and partly by the powerful position he currently holds, Dharmendra finds himself pitted against Naveen, though the BJP plans to rely heavily on Prime Minister Modi’s appeal to counter the Odisha chief minister’s image during the next assembly elections scheduled for 2019.

Odisha also accounts for another senior Central minister – tribal affairs minister Jual Oram – but the better networked Dharmendra is perceived by many as the party’s more credible chief ministerial candidate. He is the most visible, if not the tallest, figure among BJP leaders in Odisha and hardly a week passes without Dharmendra attending a huge rally or leading a cavalcade of cars and party workers into the remotest corners to storm what are known to be BJD citadels.

Though now re-elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, and constantly travelling around the country and the globe as an influential union minister, Dharmendra keeps Odisha central to his political priorities. He visits his home state so frequently that one of his partymen told a journalist colleague recently, ‘Muku Bhai [Muku is Dharmendra’s pet name] leaves Odisha only to come back the next day or the day after. He is never away from the state for long.’

But what exactly set the alarm bells ringing for Naveen about Dharmendra, who back in 2000 looked no different from many other politicians?

Also Read : Economic slowdown is a narrative designed by rivals: Dharmendra Pradhan at OTC

A top IAS officer who served Naveen for a long time insisted that Naveen possesses ‘X-ray eyes’. He is suspicious by nature. The moment he sees a person, he sizes him up, without letting the person know what he is thinking of him. ‘Naveen’s gut feelings are strong and he relies heavily on them,’ another senior official explained. Those who have worked with him closely say that Naveen hides his emotions well. He may have a very poor opinion of someone, but the person will never get to know that. On the contrary, it is more likely that the chief minister’s warm hospitality would have floored him and the person may go away thinking he has made a good impression on Naveen.

Excerpted, with due permission, from ‘Naveen Patnaik’ by Ruben Banerjee. Publisher: Juggernaut Books.

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