Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik might be enigmatic and reticent, but he is reassuring to his audience. On a muggy September evening, Naveen Nivas—the leafy house Patnaik inherited from his parents and which has served as his official residence for 25 years—hosted a set of twin brothers who had passed the Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced) with flying colours. Patnaik congratulated them, made them feel comfortable and gifted them Parker pens.
Then came a few women's self-help groups, a constituency he had carefully nurtured and empowered. They greeted Patnaik with an enthusiastic hulahuli (a type of ululation), and he welcomed them, praising their efforts in making lakhs of flags for the 75th Independence Day.
Between these two events, Patnaik met THE WEEK for an interview at his home office. The large space has idols of Shree Jagannatha covered in fresh flowers and the walls were painted with the famous Odia story of king Purushottama Deva, who undertook a journey with the blessings of Shree Jagannatha. It seemed an apt painting. Patnaik, who has ruled the state unhindered for 22 years, can also claim to have the Lord's blessings.
“I am 75 now, and I have to be careful about what I eat,” he said, dressed in his trademark white kurta-pyjama. “I prefer home-cooked light meals. I travel extensively across the state to meet my people.”
A history buff, Patnaik had once corrected a local guide about a monument in Rome when he was there to meet the pope. Currently, he is watching The Crown, a Netflix series on Queen Elizabeth II, the longest-serving British monarch. Patnaik himself will surpass Jyoti Basu next year, to rank second on the list of longest-serving Indian chief ministers. Former Sikkim chief minister Pawan Kumar Chamling sits at number one with more than 24 years in office. Excerpts from an interview:
Q/ Odisha has transformed a lot in the past two decades, and its human development index rating has improved quite a bit. What approach has led to this steady change?
A/ People first. Gandhiji’s talisman has always been our guiding principle. Empowerment of our people—be it women, youth, children, tribals or other vulnerable groups—is what our policies aim at. Citizen-centric governance is our guiding light.
Q/ Are you satisfied with the work done in the past 25 years? Any particular project close to your heart?
A/ I am here to serve my people. I have always held that the 4.5 crore people of Odisha are my family. There is definitely more work to be done and, by the grace of Lord Jagannatha and the support of the people of Odisha, we will continue to do great work. Women’s empowerment is very close to my heart.
Q/ What do you want to accomplish for the state in coming years?
A/ I want Odisha to have a globally competitive skilled workforce spearheading industrial development and growth in the service sector. [I want] our people to have a high quality of life—an empowered and spirited Odisha claiming her place under the sun. That is a work in progress.
Q/ When you first took office, Odisha had just been hit by the super cyclone of 1999. The state is now a role model in disaster management. What are you doing that other states aren't?
A/ We ensured that “every life is precious” is the core of our disaster management strategy. We put in place community-led systems that became global benchmarks and were praised by the UN as well. Odisha is one of the most disaster-prone states and we are always alert to tackle any type of disaster.
Q/ Disaster management aside, the state has an impressive welfare record, particularly about women's empowerment, and is also now paddy-surplus. How did all this come about?
A/ Years of hard work and focused monitoring have led to the results you see today across Odisha. For us, the empowerment of the people is the primary focus and not just the welfare schemes.
Q/ How do you ensure productivity and performance from your ministers and bureaucrats?
A/ Our entire state government team is focused on transforming the state in all sectors. The 5T principles (teamwork, technology, transparency, transformation and time limit) and Mo Sarkar (direct feedback from the public) initiatives of close monitoring are creating a very positive impact.
Q/ Odisha has hosted a hockey World Cup and has become a hub for the sport. How is your government incentivising sportspersons?
A/ We are fully supporting sportspersons to achieve their dreams and emerge as role models in society. However, for us, sports is not just about events or medals; it is about the future of our youth and the future of our society.
Q/ Some states hard sell their development models, be it Gujarat or Delhi. Is there an Odisha model that the country should know about?
A/ I think our work speaks for itself. And people know about it.
Q/ There is a heated debate on the issue of freebies versus welfarism. Do you agree that there should be a cap on freebies? Or should the states be free to decide?
A/ I do not think there should be any cap or limits. It should be left to the wisdom of democratically elected state governments. Whatever needs to be done to empower citizens and improve the lives of people is a primary responsibility of every government.
Q/ What are your views on holding a caste census?
A/ We have already constituted a commission under the chairmanship of a retired high court judge and are waiting for its recommendation.
Q/ A key feature of your tenure has been communal harmony in the state. Do you agree with the opposition charge that intolerance has grown in the country?
A/ We are duty-bound to follow the principles of our Constitution. India is a vast and diverse country. If we aspire to be a global power, there has to be social harmony.
Q/ Your counterparts in other regional parties are trying to expand their footprint outside their states. Why has the Biju Janata Dal not tried to do so?
A/ The BJD is a regional party with a clear focus on empowering the people of Odisha. We do not have any other ambitions.
Q/ You have supported the NDA on key issues, but the BJP is your opponent in Odisha.
A/ Governance and politics are two separate things. We do not mix up these two. Whatever we do will be for the development of the state and in the larger interest of the country.
Q/ Opposition parties are making an attempt at unity ahead of the 2024 general elections. Has anyone approached you? If the opposition proposes your name as its prime minister candidate, would you accept?
A/ I have made it clear time and again that I am quite happy serving the people of Odisha.
Q/ As you were an “accidental” politician, do you think you have missed out on some other life?
A/ Not at all. I have not missed out on anything. Serving the people of Odisha has been a lifetime opportunity for me.
Q/ If given a choice again, would you still choose politics?
A/ Absolutely. Politics is not a job for me; it is a spiritual journey. I have been blessed by Lord Jagannatha and the people of Odisha to continue to serve.
Q/ You have made only two foreign visits as chief minister, and are not seen travelling within the country. Is that a conscious decision?
A/ I do undertake travel, if it benefits my state and my people.
Q/ What is your typical day like? How do you unwind? Which is the last film you enjoyed?
A/ I follow a simple lifestyle. I do spend time on exercising. I eat in limited portions and it is usually Odia food, which is a healthy cuisine. I enjoy reading books, especially on history and politics.
Q/ Have you thought about how many more elections you will contest?
A/ I have been blessed by the people of Odisha for more than two decades. With every election, our party won more votes. As I said, it is a continuous spiritual journey for me, in the service of the people of Odisha.
Q/ There is a big question mark on who will handle the BJD after you. Is there a succession plan?
A/ The BJD is a vibrant political party with strong democratic values. It enjoys the confidence of the people of Odisha. The party has definite plans and it will serve the people affectionately for a long time to come.