From Bureaucracy to Ballot: Is Pandian the Successor to Naveen Patnaik?

VK Pandian

Odisha which otherwise remains a calm peaceful state, with exceptional majestic fury engulfing from the Bay of Bengal, has now political winds churning the quiet and monotonous constitutional landscape dominated by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for the past 25 years, with CM’s long-time private secretary, V.K Pandian appointed as the Chairman of 5T (Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, Time and Transformation) Initiative and Nabin Odisha (New Odisha) on Tuesday.

This appointment grants him the rank of a Cabinet Minister and allows him to work directly under CM Patnaik, while the appointment’s nature may not be explicitly political, his probable entry has the potential to reshape the political landscape in the State in numerous ways.

Though the state government order gives no clarity on Pandian’s role, sources said the former IAS officer would work with more authority since major programmes and projects of the state government are taken up under the 5T.

Recently, the Odisha government has approved the Rs 4,000 crore ‘Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha’ (Our Odisha, New Odisha) scheme under which every panchayat will get Rs 50 lakh to take up different projects, it will now be implemented under the direct supervision of Pandian.

The Controversy

The appointment comes a day after his voluntary retirement from all India Civil Service. On Monday, the Centre approved his voluntary retirement, clearing the path for Pandian’s potential entry into politics.

In a letter to the state’s General Administration Department, the Centre’s Department of Personnel and Training said his voluntary retirement has been accepted “with the waiver of the notice period as recommended by the State Government”.

“In reference to letter No.GAD-SER1-PERS-0100-2014 dated 20.10.2023 from the Government of Odisha on the above-mentioned subject, I am directed to convey the approval of the competent authority for acceptance of voluntary retirement of Shri V Kartikeya Pandian, IAS(OD-2000) under Rule 16(2A) of All India Services (Death-cum- Retirement benefits) Rules, 1958 with waiver of the notice period as recommended by the State Government,” read the statement issued by the Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances, and Pensions, Department of Personnel and Training.

Commenting on Pandian’s possible political entry, Congress MP Saptagiri Ulaka said that he would not be surprised if Pandian took charge as the chief minister of Odisha before the next elections. Same kind of comments also came from State BJP President Manmohan Samal, who commented on Pandian’s entry as a timepass politics, and he added, no one will remember him after a couple of days.

“…such is the power structure in Odisha, no one has a clue what’s happening but everyone knows who’s controlling. VRS approved in 3 days during holidays – Super Fast,” he said in a post on X.

Naveen Patnaik’s ‘Man Friday’?

There have been talks going on in the political circles of Odisha over the probable entry of Pandian into politics, Pandian’s ascent to prominence as the chief minister’s trusted confidant has frequently embroiled him in disputes, as opposition parties have accused him of exploiting his role for political advantages.

Recently in June, he was also in the limelight for his whirlwind tour to different districts, including Keonjhar, Bargarh, Dhenkanal, Bhadrak, Rayagada, Balasore, and Kandhamal using the state chopper. 

The complaint by Ms. Sarangi and Mr. Samal, lodged on June 24 with the DoPT, said, “Mr. Pandian is moving around the State using State plane/helicopter and attending public reception. He is announcing new projects and as per his own claims, all this on the instruction of [the] CM. This is done in clear violation of Rule 5(I) and Rule 12 (I) of AISC Rules…

The opposition BJP and Congress had targeted Pandian, for violating service condition rules and has been accused by the opposition of running the government in the state on behalf of the chief minister.

Commenting on the voluntary retirement, the BJP chief whip Mohan Majhi said Pandian has resigned to take forward his political activities. “Now, he will be able to do politics openly instead of with the mask of a bureaucrat on. He will not be accepted by the people of Odisha,” he claimed

Taking a swipe at Pandian, senior Congress leader Jairam Ramesh posted, “He has been a fine civil servant and helped Naveen Patnaik enormously. But it is good that a de facto situation will finally become a de jure one, and Pandian will become a political figure in his own right. It was a strange situation in Odisha for over a decade and a half with the CM being like an absentee landlord and his chief aide functioning as the state’s CEO.”

His top-ranking role within the government received validation when the Odisha Chief Minister known as a man of few words, clarified, that the IAS officer was his representative in response to opposition critiques regarding the extensive authority exercised by Mr. Pandian.

Moreover, the Department of Personnel and Training in its letter has approved Mr. Pandian’s voluntary retirement with waiver of the notice period recommended by the State Government. With a few months left for both Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in the State, his formal joining in Biju Janata Dal may be fast-forwarded, as opined by political observers.

V.K. Pandian’s Rise to Upper Echelons of the Power Pyramid

The 2000 batch bureaucrat initiated his public service career as a sub-collector in Dharmagarh in Kalhandi district and subsequently served as a district collector in both Mayurbhanj and Ganjam, before his posting in CMO, Odisha in 2011. As a collector, his efforts to simplify processes in the issuance of certificates for people with disabilities were widely recognized.

His efforts have significantly contributed to the Odisha government’s flagship program, ‘Mo Sarkar,’ which enhances citizen engagement in governance. This initiative gathers random feedback from citizens to evaluate the effectiveness of public services, aiming to make government officials more accountable for their actions.

He also served as the secretary to the Odisha government’s 5T governance charter, which focuses on Transparency, Technology, Teamwork, and Time leading to Transformation. This initiative aims to fast-track multiple projects and has been pivotal in the successful implementation of various state endeavors.

Pandian as an IAS officer left his mark on all the crucial flagship government initiatives that the Biju Janata Dal Government touted as its accomplishments. His contributions are believed to include concepts for school improvements, temple refurbishments, the transformation of Odisha into a sports center, and expediting the implementation of government programs.

Pandian’s portfolio isn’t limited to bureaucratic governance. His role in executing large-scale projects like the Sri Jagannath Heritage Corridor is noteworthy,  the man has also been a guiding force in the restoration of ancient temples across Odisha.

In the span of six months, he embarked on a comprehensive tour of all 147 assembly constituencies in Odisha. During this time, he engaged with local communities to address their concerns and assessed the progress of various development initiatives. Furthermore, during the challenging period of the COVID-19 pandemic also, V.K Pandian was actively involved in inspecting the preparedness of healthcare facilities.

It was on May 29, 2012, when Odisha’s Chief Minister found himself facing an attempted coup led by the late Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, a former bureaucrat and advisor to the Chief Minister. In this critical situation, Mr. Patnaik needed someone he could trust. Given that the BJD leader had a reputation for depending more on his bureaucracy than his political associates, Mr. Pandian stepped into this vacuum and gained confidence.

The IAS officer is widely believed to be the one-stop contact for politicians, officers, industrialists, and visitors seeking the appointment of Mr. Patnaik and has continued to wield “extraordinary influence” in governance.

Bureaucracy’s Foray into Politics

In a country where the permanent and political executive are entwined to run the state machinery, the entry of bureaucrats into the political spectrum is not something new, with a rising trend seen in other states also.

Earlier, Aparajita Sarangi, a former IAS officer from the Odisha cadre, although originally from Bihar, made a successful entry into the world of politics. She achieved this by securing a Member of Parliament position with the Bharatiya Janata Party, representing the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency. A noteworthy point is her marriage to Santosh Sarangi, an Odia IAS officer.

“Ms. Sarangi’s situation differs from Mr. Pandian’s. In the context of Indian politics and societal dynamics, people tend to embrace daughters-in-law as integral members of their families, as seen in the case of Sonia Gandhi. However, the same level of acceptance is not always extended to sons-in-law. Despite Mr. Pandian’s marriage to Odia IAS officer Sujata Kartikeyan, his acceptability is an aspect that the BJD may need to work on,” remarked Rabi Das, a political commentator and esteemed journalist.

Also, BJD was founded on the basic premise of strong regionalism. Making the Tamil Nadu born IAS officer’s possible drafting into BJD and his decision-making status acceptable among people and party cadres could well be a challenge being keenly watched by political observers.

Nonetheless, Mr. Patnaik’s four-page exhaustive clarification on the floor of the State Assembly to defend his private secretary’s tours depicts his trust in Pandian as his confidant.

V.K Pandian’s potential foray into politics might herald an interesting period ahead, as it could over the rife speculations, regarding Mr. Patnaik’s successor, in the gusty political winds of otherwise calm Odisha.

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