V.K. Pandian says 2024 polls be the smoothest one for Naveen Patnaik

Odisha women trust the CM and they will be the biggest game changers

42-Pandian Heir apparent: Pandian at a rally in Odisha | Sanjay Ahlawat

Interview/ V.K. Pandian, BJD leader

Naveen Patnaik has been an enigma in Indian politics, consistently winning elections with ease. His bid for a record sixth term is led by his trusted aide V.K. Pandian, who left his job as an IAS officer to enter politics. The 49-year-old is originally from Tamil Nadu, but has adopted Odisha as his karmabhoomi. He is fluent in Odia, a Jagannath devotee and is even called Odisha’s son-in-law because he married an Odia IAS officer.

The BJD is not a party that wins by a small margin; it has landslides. It is a strong political party and nobody will dare do anything to it.

The BJP and the Congress have labelled him an outsider, but Pandian's rapport with the masses is evident; he is seen as the catalyst for progress in the state. Known as the '4am' officer because of his early starts and pre-dawn media briefings, Pandian is crisscrossing the state as the star campaigner for his party. THE WEEK caught up with him during his rally in Begunia, travelling with him in his AgustaWestland 109 chopper. He had a busy day with the manifesto release and numerous visitors to Patnaik's office, and he ate his final meal of the day―cereal―at six in the evening, before settling in for an interview. Excerpts:

Q/ Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is under 100 days away from becoming the longest-serving chief minister. Is the road to that landmark bumpy?

A/ This is the smoothest election. The 2014 and 2019 elections were challenging, but this is a one-sided election for Naveen babu.

Q/ What makes you so confident?

A/ I am on the ground, I see the people's emotions. They want to give their biggest aashirwaad (blessings) to Naveen babu to work hard for the state. See all the women and the youth, everyone is so excited.

Q/ A lot of women attend your rallies.

A/ The chief minister walks the talk when it comes to economic, political and financial empowerment of women. They have trust in him. They are deeply in love with Naveen babu. Women will be the biggest game changers, as always.

Q/ What are your new promises this time?

A/ Naveen babu’s government is development in continuation. At every stage you introduce or give importance to something; like, when he took over, he gave importance to disaster management, then food security. This term, he is looking at 100 years of the state's formation in 2036. But, he keeps a two-year buffer. He has kept 2024 to 2034 as the decade for youth. He is going to completely focus on the youth in terms of [creating] employment [and] skill development. He has promised scholarships to almost 98 per cent of college students. Through the youth, he wants to create a new, empowered Odisha.

Q/ We heard you are promising a new youth budget.

A/ Naveen babu is introducing a concept called youth budget, and he is keeping about Rs1 lakh crore as the budget for the next 10 years―Rs10,000 crore every year. He is keeping Rs1,000 crore as a separate initiative in which the activities will be decided based on students' feedback. Students will have access to the state budget and they will play a role in deciding what needs to be done. This will make them competent and confident.

44-Women-supporters-at-a-Pandian-rally Female force: Women supporters at a Pandian rally | Sanjay Ahlawat

Q/ As women seem to be the focus in the state, what is in store for them?

A/ One of the major complaints of the Mission Shakti group members (women's self-help group) was that when they retire, they do not get pension. He (Patnaik) has announced pension for them. On average, last year, they had taken Rs15,000 crore loan from banks. The interest subvention is made by the chief minister; he is giving it at 0 per cent interest. This Rs15,000 crore will be increased to Rs25,000 crore, and in five years [it will be] Rs1.25 lakh crore. See the impact it will have on their livelihood, and economic and agriculture activities.

Q/ How do you see your opponents, be it the BJP or the Congress, announcing more guarantees?

A/ They have offered the moon and sun and everything under the sun. But people are intelligent. And they trust Naveen babu. When he says something, he delivers.

Q/ Can we frame this election as a contest between Naveen Patnaik’s lifelong guarantee and Modi's guarantees?

A/ You can. The chief minister keeps saying it is 5T guarantee, which has become his government’s brand and philosophy. People trust 5T (transparency, technology, teamwork, time, transformation) because it is delivering.

Q/ What changes have you brought into the campaign as compared with 2019?

A/ It is purely micromanagement; it is scientific and technology-driven. Naveen babu does not prepare for elections during the elections. This is a continuous process. So, he focuses on organisational strength, training those people, making workers a team.

Q/ In terms of messaging, you are saying the focus should be on both Lok Sabha and assembly polls, which was missing earlier.

A/ Political parties thought that even if you do not do publicity, people will vote for the same party [in both elections]. But it was not the case. This was the learning last time, so the BJD is focusing on both.

Q/ The BJP’s top leadership claims the party will come to power in Odisha.

A/ When the chief minister heard their claim, he gave a 10-second video message saying that, for long, the BJP has had a habit of daydreaming. The video got 10 million views.

Q/ A BJP leader said the party was in touch with BJD leaders and that there could be an Eknath Shinde in the BJD, too.

A/ They have been saying this for long. The BJD is not a party that wins by a small margin; it has landslides. It is a strong political party and nobody will dare do anything to it.

Q/ The BJP has a target of more than 400 seats. How much will Odisha contribute to that figure?

A/ It is to boost the confidence of their cadre that they had to come up with this number and set a certain narrative. People are smart and they know that this is narrative-setting.

Q/ Will the BJP be able to maintain its tally?

A/ They would not be able to. I am saying this with conviction. The BJD will get more seats both in the assembly and in Parliament compared with 2019.

Q/ How do you look at the Congress's challenge?

A/ Not much, maybe in pockets, yes. They have a presence in three or four districts.

Q/ Western Odisha has been tough for the BJD. Is that why the chief minister is contesting from a second seat there?

A/ If the BJD has a strike rate of 90 per cent in the coastal area, in western Odisha it has 75 to 80 per cent. It is not that huge a [difference]. But the chief minister always contests in two constituencies as he wants one more constituency to get huge development. It is more development than politics.

Q/ One of the highlights of this tenure was the development of the Jagannath temple corridor. If we were to compare this with the consecration of the Ram Temple, which will have more resonance among the people?

A/ It was not done for votes. Naveen babu can win elections on development work. It was his conviction that the temple has to be secured. There were security issues that were creating a lot of problems. It has to be protected for future generations. Number one is security and number two is to enhance the spiritual experience of pilgrims. Lakhs of devotees visit every day and there was no space for parikrama (circumambulation). In Hinduism, one of the main ways of offering prayer is through parikrama. He ensured that. In fact, he took a big political risk by getting into this project because two former chief ministers had tried and failed. The risks involved are too high. It is so sensitive, people can create rumours and defame you. But he decided that he will do it as Odisha has so much faith in him.

Q/ One of the BJP’s promises is to conduct an audit of the ratna bhandar (inner chamber) at the Jagannath temple.

A/ This is a political narrative. People laugh at it. For 40 years, the ratna bhandar has not been opened. The chief minister has formed a committee headed by a retired Supreme Court judge to open it. Whatever documentation has been done as per court order, they are doing it. So, the government has nothing to fight in these things.

Q/ The BJP and the Congress say you are an outsider in the state.

A/ I do not know the meaning of an outsider for a national party. I am an Indian citizen by birth. I breathe Odisha; it is my karmabhoomi. The people of Odisha have to decide who is an outsider. I leave it to them.

Q/ Are you the political heir to the chief minister’s legacy?

A/ The chief minister has always held that people of Odisha will decide who will succeed him. I am his disciple and I follow all the good values he possesses. He is an inspiration for all of us.

Q/ So there is still time before you hold a political office, an elected one?

A/ I am already holding a political office as chairman of 5T. I have made it clear the day I joined the BJD that I am here to help the chief minister in this election.

Q/ But you are open to contesting in future.

A/ We should not get into hypothetical questions right now. I am completely focused on making the chief minister win his sixth term and serve the people of Odisha.