State power to state politics: VK Pandian is the man of the moment in Odisha
It was in May 2012 when Pandian proved his political worth as he successfully steered the party and bureaucracy in favour of Patnaik through a revolt
Moments after he joined Biju Janata Dal (BJD) during a well-orchestrated event in chief minister Naveen Patnaik's residence in Bhubaneswar on Monday morning, on social media site X (formerly Twitter), #Pandian4NaveenOdisha started trending with hundreds of handles extolling VK Pandian, former IAS officer of 2000 batch.
"The fusion of VK's visionary strides and BJD's ethos creates a formidable force for transformative leadership," wrote social media user Brindal Samal while another wrote “BJD gains a visionary thinker in VK, marking a pivotal moment in the pursuit of inclusive progress.”
BJD MLA from Puri's Satyabadi constituency, Umakanta Samantray, wrote: “VK Pandian's entry into BJD heralds a new phase in the party's journey. His past contributions and transformative approach will undoubtedly bolster the party's service to the people of Odisha.”
It was not the first time that social media was going gaga over Pandian. Though he does not have a personal handle on X or Facebook, the 49-year-old Pandian has been a frequent topic of tea-time political discussion: Whether he would emerge as Naveen Patnaik’s political successor?
“With the guidance of chief minister Naveen Patnaik, I will work for the people of Odisha in a dedicated, humble and selfless manner,” said Pandian as Patnaik and others smiled and looked on.
Pandian, clad in a full-sleeve untucked shirt and light green trousers and wearing chappals, has been like a shadow to 76-year-old Patnaik, now in his 23rd year as chief minister.
Though popular in the state -- having won five assembly elections on a trot -- Patnaik is reticent and virtually inaccessible in his home ‘Naveen Niwas’ near Bhubaneswar’s airport. With Patnaik getting older and frail and no heir in sight, Pandian has grown in stature to be the proverbial ‘Man Friday’ of the second longest-serving chief minister of the country as he controls access to him.
Now with Pandian joining BJD ahead of the 2024 assembly polls, a few months after he finished his much-publicised whirlwind visits to 30 districts in choppers, addressing meetings, listening to grievances and posing with party workers including women members of self-help groups (SHG) groups, discussions have become intense on him being the chosen successor of the BJD patriarch. His joining BJD on Monday and a likely party nomination in 2024 Assembly polls have further fuelled speculation that he could indeed be the political successor to Patnaik.
Who is VK Pandian?
Born on May 29, 1974, at Koothappanpatti village near Melur in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district, Pandian did his schooling at a sports hostel of Neyveli that came under the Sports Development Authority of Tamil Nadu (SDAT). He shifted back to Madurai to finish his graduation (BSc in Agriculture) at the Agriculture College and Research Institute and pursued his post-graduation studies at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. A middle-distance runner during his university days, he was the university champion in both 800m and 1500m.
After his post-graduation, Pandian cleared the UPSC and became an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) from the Punjab cadre in 2000 but changed to the Odisha cadre after marrying batchmate Sujata Rout Karthikeyan, now heading the Mission Shakti department of Odisha, that looks after six lakh women self-help groups. He was first posted as a sub-collector in Dharamgarh in Kalahandi where he streamlined the paddy procurement process and was then posted as the additional district magistrate in the steel city of Rourkela.
Between 2005 and 2007, he was posted as collector of Odisha’s largest district, Mayurbhanj, where he set in place a system through which people with disabilities could be identified and rehabilitated at the village and block levels. The initiative got him the Helen Keller Award.
In 2007, he was made district collector of Ganjam where Patnaik's assembly constituency Hinjili is located. In the four years that he worked in Ganjam, Pandian was instrumental in efficiently implementing the process of paying wages to labourers through bank accounts for which Ganjam received the National Award for being the best district in implementing the NREGA scheme.
Impressed with his administrative skills, Patnaik brought him to the chief minister’s office (CMO) in 2011 as his private secretary.
Over the next few months, Patnaik would become increasingly dependent upon Pandian, who could put in longer hours at work and still rise early to do Vipassana. In 2011, he helped launch the Mamata scheme, a ₹5000 conditional cash transfer scheme for pregnant women and lactating mothers that endeared the women voters to BJD.
It was in May 2012 when Pandian proved his political worth as he successfully steered the party and bureaucracy in favour of Patnaik when the CM's long-time political advisor Pyarimohan Mohapatra staged a revolt during the first foreign trip of the BJD chief after 2000.
The rebellion was quickly quelled primarily due to Pandian's acumen and damage control abilities. Soon, Patnaik began to repose his faith in bureaucrats.
"After the failed coup, Pandian ensured that no other power centre rises in the party who could challenge Patnaik. It also led to his increasing isolation from the party," said a senior BJD leader, who asked not to be quoted. “As Pandian was a serving IAS officer and a non-Odia to boot, the CM must have thought Pandian could never be a threat to him, unlike Mohapatra.”
The 2014 assembly poll was the first acid test for Pandian where he played a key role along with senior BJD leaders like Kalpataru Das. Soon his office on the third floor in the CM’s secretariat became the most famous address and Pandian became the gateway to Patnaik.
He again proved himself in the 2019 assembly polls helping Patnaik notch up his fifth win. Though the power circle soon began to coalesce around him, the brickbats started flying with opposition parties the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress questioning his "increasing" interference while superseding senior officers.
To protect his protege from increasing attacks, Patnaik in 2019 started an initiative called 5T which stood for teamwork, transparency, technology, time and transformation and made Pandian its head. Though there was no department named 5T, all departments were supposed to have their 5T vision and thus report to the CM's private secretary. "It was a brilliant arrangement that created a super bureaucracy within the bureaucracy. The new arrangement dwarfed the chief secretary and made him the centre of governance," said a former bureaucrat.
Building his image as a sports lover
Being a keen sportsman, Pandian's focus on sports events in the last six years helped Patnaik burnish his image as a sports lover and made Odisha the talking point nationally.
In 2017, the Asian Athletics Championships was scheduled to be held in Ranchi, but a few months before the event, Jharkhand withdrew leaving Athletic Federation of India bosses scrambling for a host. Odisha agreed to be the host, just 90 days before the scheduled event and successfully executed it.
The Patnaik-Pandian partnership blossomed as the state hosted two men's World Cup hockey championships in 2018 and 2023, FIH Men’s Series Finals and Olympic Hockey Qualifiers in 2019 and FIH Pro League in 2020 earning Odisha the nickname of India's Sports Capital. In 2018, when Sahara India pulled out as the official sponsor of the Indian hockey team, Odisha stepped in to sponsor the team for five years and again extended it for 10 more years this year. Since then, Odisha has invested much in hockey building the biggest hockey stadium in Rourkela, the cradle of hockey and a high-performance centre for hockey in collaboration with Tata Group in Bhubaneswar. In May 2021, the FIH (International Hockey Federation) conferred Pandian with the FIH President’s Award.
Initiatives and schemes
In the last four years, Pandian drove the state administration to undertake several initiatives including the ₹943 crore programme for beautification of the perimeter of the iconic Jagannath temple in Puri and Ekamra Kshetra Development project in Bhubaneswar. When a frail Patnaik remained homebound during the Covid pandemic in 2020 and most of 2021, it was Pandian who went around the state, checking on the pace of projects including a pet project to transform the government-run schools as ‘5T Schools’ through construction of new buildings and creation of smart classrooms.
Speculation and controversies
Over the last four years, the pictures of Pandian visiting schools and having lunch with children, praying at temples with priests garlanding him and senior officials fawning over him during his famous pre-dawn visits to undertake inspections of government projects left no one in doubt about the possible career trajectory of the Tamilian officer.
The speculation over his assuming a political role in the BJD was strengthened early this year when he undertook a whirlwind tour to all the 30 districts in choppers, seemingly to redress public grievances.
While opposition parties, the BJP and Congress, raised the issue of an officer undertaking so many tours using a chopper, murmurs within the party began with BJD MLA and media baron Soumya Ranjan Patnaik alleging that Pandian's tour expenses may be as high as the amount spent on Chandrayaan-3 mission.
Patnaik was expelled from the BJD in September and had to resign as editor of his paper after the state economic offences wing lodged a case against him over alleged forgery in taking loans from banks using his employees’ names fraudulently. Meanwhile, BJP MP Aparajita Sarangi and Congress leader Bijay Patnaik petitioned the DoPT, seeking punitive action against Pandian over alleged violation of the All India Service (Conduct) Rules during his district visits.
Strong support from the CM
Even as the attacks on Pandian rose, the chief minister stoutly defended him in the Assembly in September saying it was done to address the legacy issues pending for years together.
Calling it "one of the biggest and most effective peoples’ grievances redressal exercises carried out by any government in the country", Patnaik said 57,442 petitions (grievances) were received by Pandian in more than 190 locations over a period of six months. As the opposition continued to attack Pandian for his whirlwind tours, he took voluntary retirement from service on October 23, granted by department of personnel and training within three days of his application.
On October 24, Pandian was appointed as chairperson of "Nabin Odisha" and ‘5T Initiative,’ with a Cabinet minister rank that allows him to keep the party and the government under control. While the ₹4000 Nabina Odisha scheme to do developmental work in 6,794 gram panchayats ahead of polls would hold his control of the party activities, the government departments would have to report to him for 5T initiatives.
While the jury is still out on whether Pandian would be the successor to Patnaik, BJD organisational secretary Pranab Prakash Das feels there is little doubt about it. "He is the true disciple of Naveen Patnaik. His joining would invigorate the last of the workers of BJD," Das said.
While senior BJD leaders are falling over each other in trying to flatter Pandian, who now holds the reins of the party and government, others in the party are not sure what will happen once Patnaik is not there. "Naveen Patnaik was accepted as the son of Biju Patnaik. The same may not happen in the case of Pandian. Once Patnaik is not there who knows what would happen. BJP would not be sitting silently as it has been out of power for around a decade and a half," said a senior BJD leader.