The backroom boy is leading from the front. For the better part of eight years, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s private secretary V. Karthikeyan Pandian was terribly shy of public appearances. He was talked about more than he was seen. But all that has changed after the launch of the 'Mo Sarkar' (my government), a first-of-its-kind initiative in the country to make the state administration people-friendly and delivery of public services more efficient, under the chief minister’s ambitious 5T (teamwork, technology, transparency, transformation and timeline) drive on October 2, with Pandian as the secretary.
Soon after, the publicity-shy Pandian embarked on a whirlwind tour of the districts, with TV cameras in tow, to see for himself the state of government facilities, focusing particularly on hospitals. In just about a week, he covered about a dozen districts, the majority in predominantly tribal south and north Odisha. Though several top officials accompanied him, it was he who drew the stage-light. Even chief secretary Asit Tripathy found the lenses and flashes trained more on Pandian when the two went together to Kandhamal and Boudh on October 11. Not just the media, even district administration officials tailed the ‘CM’s man’, elusive until then.
It was Pandian who did most of the talking during the tours—asking patients or their attendants about the availability of free medicines at hospitals; asking people in queues at regional transport offices if touts were around on the premises. As part of the new public-outreach initiative, the 5T secretary even had a Rs-5 lunch of rice and dalma (an Odia broth of dal, vegetables and spices) to check the quality of food served at Boudh’s Aahar centre—a heavily subsidised eatery for the masses, having outlets across the state.
“Naveen has delegated much of his political role to Pandian, but that does not mean he is the CM’s political successor,” says journalist Rabi Das.
While he went out of the way to get public feedback on the quality of government services, he politely declined to oblige the electronic media for the customary ‘bite’. Disappointed TV crews had to make do with district officials instead. And these bureaucrats were caught off-guard as most of the visits came unannounced. Such was the secrecy that even the media did not get wind till an hour or two before a tour.
Unaccustomed to such surprises, the officials were left scrambling for last-minute refurbishment of their premises, especially on the cleanliness count. But anxiety soon turned into fear as the government suspended the acting chief district medical officer of Sundargarh, Dr Pankaj Patel, and served a show-cause notice to collector Nikhil Pawan Kalyan for dereliction of duty on October 13 after Pandian and his team received complaints from people at the district headquarters hospital. The allegation was that patients were routinely referred to private clinics for pathological tests, which are officially available at the hospital.
Pandian’s whirlwind tour of the state fomented panic in the district bureaucracy and created a flutter at the top echelons too as his drive is seen as the chief minister’s not-so-subtle ploy to show who calls the shots in the administration. No bureaucrat would talk about it, although one privately admitted to Outlook that babus—some senior to Pandian—had little option but to accept the new scheme of things. It is not as if the ‘CM’s man’ did not wield such clout before. But it happened within the four walls of his room at the state secretariat, now renamed Lok Seva Bhavan in keeping with the spirit of 'Mo Sarkar'. What changed now is that his influence is all out in the open.
Pandian’s growing clout—he was reportedly seen asking the chief minister to wait his turn as he finished making a point at a recent official meeting—has also led to speculation about the official playing a more active political role as Naveen retreats gradually. Considering that Naveen is 73 and a bachelor without an anointed heir, many see in the changing power equation a move to position Pandian as his successor. Veteran journalist Rabi Das dismisses such talks. “It is obvious that Patnaik has decided to delegate much of his political role to Pandian and is testing the waters. Naveen isn’t getting younger and he wants to draw back as Pandian plays an active role in preparation for 2024 (elections). But I refuse to believe that he is projecting Pandian as his political successor,” Das says. The guessing game over Pandian’s enhanced role continues.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar