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Orissa's accidental politician

Soutik Biswas | 05:04 UK time, Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Naveen PatnaikNaveen Patnaik is sitting at the head of a table in a sparse room in his residence in a quiet neighbourhood in Bhubaneswar. It's a pleasant evening after days of a debilitating heat wave in the city; there is even a mild wind blowing today.

The polls are over in Orissa, a state that Mr Patnaik has ruled without a break for over a decade. It has possibly been the stormiest time in Mr Patnaik's 12-year-old political career. First, anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal - a remote corner of his state - sullied his secular credentials. Then he broke away from his ally and strange bedfellow, the Hindu nationalist BJP, whom he blamed for fomenting the riots. Mr Patnaik's party and the BJP had been jointly running the government for nearly a decade in Orissa. "Naveen Patnaik supped with the devil for many years," wrote an analyst recently, "till he discovered that the long spoon had shrunk."

As the polls approached, Mr Patnaik stitched up a quirky coalition with two Communist parties and a smaller regional party which is allied to Congress. Yet nationally he has not pledged his support for the Congress or BJP-led alliances; and he is keeping his fingers crossed. Nobody quite knows who he will end up supporting in the eventuality of a hung parliament.

"I see a Third Front or a Fourth Front [alliances made up of sundry regional and Communist parties] heading the federal government this time. My party will not be with any BJP or Congress-led government," he says.

Sounds confusing? But it is not. At one level, Mr Patnaik is a good example of India's growing breed of politicians who are mastering the art of stitching up unpredictable deals, where expediency and realpolitik triumph over ideology. They are taking advantage of the fragmentation of the polity, where smaller, regional parties are promising to douse what VS Naipaul famously described as India's "million mutinies".

I return to the anti-Christian riots and ask why the situation was allowed to go out of control, forcing thousands of Christians into relief camps.

"Within an hour of the violence starting, I called up the federal interior minister, Shivraj Patel, in Delhi seeking extra security forces. He took four days to send forces. We just didn't have them," he says.

"The rioters had cut the trees and put up road blocks that delayed the forces. But I did arrest the trouble makers, I issued shoot on sight orders, and took steps against the perpetrators of the violence. Many of them are in prison.

So did Kandhamal really precipitate his party's break up with the BJP? Mr Patnaik's critics say that the two actually broke up over the more prosaic matter of seat sharing; the BJP simply wanted to contest more seats.

"No, no. I and my party could not tolerate what had happened in Kandhamal. It really changed the whole scenario. I come from a secular background. After the riots, the alliance was not tenable," he said.."A Christian woman in Kandhamal during the riots

Twelve years after he joined politics after the death of his father and took over his party, Mr Patnaik appears to have immersed himself in the politics. Prior to that, he led a peripatetic life, shuttling between India and US, counting Jacqueline Onassis and Mick Jagger among his friends, and writing arcane books. When I met him at his Delhi bungalow years before he joined politics, we discussed a new coffee table book on healing plants that he had just published.

Does he miss his life before politics, the parties and the razzmatazz?

"I don't have time to think about my pre-politics days. I am so very busy," he says, asking an aide to swat a fly off the table.

"Let us not talk about Mick Jagger in the middle of an Indian election."

The accidental politician has turned into a rather successful chief minister of a state in little over a decade. We return to politics and the elections. Mr Patnaik tells me that he clocked 250 campaign meetings in 15 days braving the intense heat wave which had hit the state.

"People were very responsive and I am confident we will win for the third time. I have the blessings of the people."

He talks about the work he has done for his people: cheap rice for the poor, old age pensions, building, hostels for tribal girls (a quarter of Orissa's people are dirt-poor tribespeople) and wooing investments. He reels off statistics enthusiastically to support his claims.

"We have to bring lots of jobs and revenue to my poor state," he says.

I ask him about the rising wave of Maoist violence in the state. Orissa is the part of India's "red corridor" where the rebels have strongholds. They have infiltrated nearly half of Orissa's 35 districts. Over 90 policemen lost their lives here last year in rebel attacks and two police armouries were emptied out in audacious raids.

"We are strengthening the police, we are recruiting more of them, and we are fortifying the police stations. The Maoist problem has to be tackled on two fronts - improving the law and order and developing the tribal areas", Mr Patnaik says. It is an unremarkable set of solutions, but possibly the only one.

It is time to leave. Mr Patnaik says he is in a rush to attend a meeting. In an adjacent room, stands a bookshelf which offers a hint of his previous life - Dan Brown, Michael Crichton and John Le Carre crowd the shelves. What was the last book he read?, I ask. "Ah," he says, waving my question away, "Where is the time?"


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