Two Decades of Depoliticised Politics in Odisha Under Mr. Naveen Patnaik

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Why Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik is undisputed politician

by Bhabani Shankar Nayak  29 November 2023

The classical Odia literature, art, architecture, stone carvings, and its historical and cultural heritage, along with distinct philosophical musings, stand as testaments to Odia renaissance of the state, society, and polity in Odisha. The internationalist outlook is embedded within its easy-going and laid-back attitude towards everyday life. Resilience and determination define the Odia renaissance, where the acceptance of the ‘other’ as its ‘own’ delineates its unique cultural heritage and legacies. In spite of its caste-class based feudal-cliental political landscape, the progressive Odia ethos has survived all onslaughts of history, both past and present. However, contemporary Odisha appears to be a ‘politics-free zone,’ where technocratic interventions have buried the political processes aimed at deepening democracy and empowering its citizens for progressive transformation toward social, political, and economic equality in the state.

Under the leadership of Mr. Naveen Patnaik, the state of Odisha displays the growth of a bureaucratic culture of ‘anti-politics machines,’ reinforcing existing reactionary power structures, exacerbating all forms of inequalities, and undermining local political processes. The political landscape also exhibits over-centralization of power, creating conditions of tyranny and undermining decentralized democracy in the state. The hyperactive bureaucracy under centralized leadership functions as a tool to bypass, marginalize, and weaken democratic institutions and structures of governance. This is against the ideals of progressive political, social, and economic transformation of the state. The culture of depoliticization helps in maintaining the status quo, which is contrary to the values of the Odia renaissance.

The technocratic and instant solutions provided by the all-encompassing 5T (Transparency, Technology, Time, and Transformation) interventions, without political engagement, may seem beneficial temporarily. It provides an immediate boost, akin to instant coffee, but it damages the body polity in the long run. The political management with the help of technical expertise and bureaucratic efficiency can never empower citizenship rights or contribute to the deepening of democracy. They can never replace the critical role of political participation in the deepening of democracy and social transformation.

Mr. Naveen Patnaik and his government had a great opportunity to transform the state within the last twenty-three years of governance. However, his government has utterly failed to deepen democracy, transform Odia society, and realise the promises of Odia renaissance by overly relying on bureaucrats. He is centrally responsible for undermining local political processes and outsourcing empowerment to ‘self-help groups (SHGs).’ Political transformation appears elusive in rural areas, and hospitals, schools, colleges, and universities in the state seem to be in a debilitating condition.

Framing issues of people and solutions to their predicaments as purely apolitical bureaucratic initiatives undermines people and their voices in the democratic decision-making process. This approach will have profound political implications in the long run. The inherent contradiction of bureaucratic governance is detrimental to authentic socio-economic progress, as it only benefits elites in society while marginalizing the masses. The caste-class dominance and urban bias in the development process in the state are the net outcomes of depoliticized bureaucratic governance in Odisha.

Progressive politics involves bringing people and their lived experiences to frame policies and programs, empowering them as shareholders of a democratic state. Mr. Naveen Patnaik has failed to transform the state due to his disconnected bureaucratic politics. The propaganda of progress and modernization can mask the underlying power dynamics that shape political transformation based on the ideals of Odia renaissance.

Progressive politics not only articulates the needs and aspirations of the masses but also materializes them for an egalitarian transformation. Mr. Patnaik and his government have failed to articulate such an agenda in the last twenty-three years of his leadership and governance. Despite all his promises, the agenda for social justice and equity looks gloomy in the state. By hobnobbing with Hindutva politics, Mr Patnaik has helped BJP to strengthen its organisational base in Odisha and weaken the politics of social justice. The depoliticised political environment is a fertile ground for the RSS to grow. The RSS has entered into every nook and cranny of the state. Mr Patnaik’s political art of equidistance is a politics of opportunism disguised as neutrality that is suitable for the BJP in the centre.

The twenty-three years of depoliticization in Odisha under Mr. Patnaik have not only weakened its political processes but also undermined accountability and transparency in governance. The 5T initiative and its propaganda often create a space where decision-making is concentrated in the hands of experts and bureaucrats, limiting the influence of local communities and elected representatives. The overreliance on bureaucrats has shifted decision-making power away from local institutions, hindering the development of accountable and transparent governance mechanisms in the state.

The death of political opposition and engagement, and the rise of a depoliticized bureaucratic culture are twin achievements of Mr. Patnaik’s leadership. His governance, led by a bureaucratic anti-politics machine, has created a politics-free zone in the state, which is dangerous for Odisha and its people in the long run. While Mr. Patnaik may have found his henchman to carry forward his legacies in politics, Odisha and its people have lost two decades in realizing the dreams and values of the Odia renaissance.

This is a cautionary tale from a fellow Odia comrade. Will Mr. Patnaik listen and revisit his approach to revive the radical and progressive promises of the Odia renaissance based on political participation and engagement? Will Mr. Patnaik change his political direction and initiate inclusive and accountable governance and politics for the deepening of democracy in Odisha? The answers to these two questions will shape the narratives about his political legacies in the future.