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Pandian: Madurai’s son, Odisha’s son-in-law, BJD’s rising star

V Karthikeyan Pandian, a Maduraikkaran has come to become Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik’s protégé and, if rumours are to be believed, perhaps his successor as well

Pandian: Madurai’s son, Odisha’s son-in-law, BJD’s rising star
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VK Pandian with Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik

CHENNAI: It is a public meeting in a nondescript part of Odisha. On the stage is a man in his late forties, who has been at the centre of criticisms, attraction and speculation in State politics. “Jai Jagannanth,” he chants, which triggers the massive crowd to erupt in excitement.

He is neither a political leader – not yet, at least – nor a guru, but V Karthikeyan Pandian, a Maduraikkaran who has come to become Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s protégé and, if rumours are to be believed, perhaps his successor as well.

Born in Koothappanpatti village near Melur, Pandian completed his schooling at Government Higher Secondary School in A Vellalapatti and Sports School in Neyveli, and completed his graduation from Agricultural College and Research Institute in Madurai.

VK Pandian with women at a public meeting in Odisha

Taking to DT Next, retired headmistress Daisy, his then class teacher, recalled, “Pandian was an all-rounder who always stood first in studies and sports, and even managed his fellow students if the teacher was not present.”

Echoing her on how he displayed leadership qualities in those early years itself, his close friend S Sasikumar, now an IFS officer of West Bengal cadre, said Pandian was a student leader when he was at the agricultural college in 1991-95. “Pandian served as the student council secretary, and was an active participant in cultural events, inter-college festivals, and Muthamil festivals,” said Sasikumar.

After completing post-graduation and PhD at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute - Pusa in New Delhi, Pandian took Civic Service Examination in 1999 and got selected for IRS. But unsatisfied with it, he attended the exam again and was selected for IAS in the Punjab cadre in 2000, Sasikumar said.

During exam preparation, Pandian met Sujata. As Sujata hails from Odisha, Pandian shifted from Punjab to Odisha cadre, and later they got married.

Pandian started his career as a sub-collector in Dharamgarh, Kalahandi district. There, he worked on the ground to transform the region that was once the most backward area, said his colleagues. He also worked as the Collector of Mayurbhanj. But what changed his destiny was his posting as the Collector of Ganjam, the home district of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.

Transformation of a government school in Odisha

Patnaik was impressed by Pandian’s leadership and managerial skills and appointed him as his private secretary in 2011.

“In 2012, when Patnaik went to London, trouble broke out within the BJD. But Pandian quickly quelled the rebellion and saved the government. This is the starting point of Patnaik’s immense faith in Pandian,” said an official who has worked with Patnaik and Pandian.

Pandian’s political acumen was on display yet again when the BJD suffered a setback in 2017 civic polls, which triggered whispers that Patnaik’s downfall had begun. “It was Pandian who orchestrated BJD’s landslide victory in the 2019 LS elections, taking Patnaik’s faith in him to the next level. After that, Patnaik (who has no family or heirs) started treating Pandian as his own son, which surprised the party men and officials,” he added.

Now, after Pandian’s rise as a leader, speculations are rife that he will contest the elections, and become a Minister, Deputy Chief Minister, or even the Chief Minister. When asked, senior officials close to Patnaik told DT Next that a clear picture would emerge only close to the election.

“Pandian’s role in the upcoming Assembly elections is a suspense. But with Patnaik, always expect the unexpected. What he plans will be known only at the time of elections,” said one of them.

Reverse K plan

After gaining Naveen Patnaik’s confidence, Pandian suggested changes in the party structure to develop the BJD party and secure its future.

Among the most notable was the inversion of what is famously called ‘Kamaraj plan’ – the idea mooted and implemented by Tamil Nadu Chief Minister and Congress president K Kamaraj to move senior leaders to do party work and bring in the youth to governance.

Pandian’s idea for BJD’s growth was the ‘Reverse K plan’. “He suggested putting senior leaders in the ministerial post while youngsters would be deployed to work for the party. This is considered to have contributed to the growth of BJD,” said a senior official.

After remaining Patnaik’s private secretary since 2011, Pandian was given the additional responsibility of being the points-person of the 5T (Teamwork, Technology, Transparency, Time Limit and Transformation), a governance reform initiative aimed at promoting transparency and efficiency, in 2019.

In October, after facing criticism for several years that he was primarily a politician, Pandian took VRS from service and was immediately appointed as the chairman of 5T and Nabin Odisha, a newly-launched rural development scheme, with a Cabinet rank.

Those close to him claimed that it was an oversimplification to state that Pandian won Patnaik’s trust merely because he had saved the party and the regime.

“It’s Pandian’s major role in Odisha’s tremendous development that has brought him where he is today. No one can deny the infrastructure projects like hospitals, schools, playgrounds, agriculture, waterbodies, temples, and development works that he undertook and implemented successfully,” they added.

Patnaik’s successor?

According to many political observers in Odisha, Pandian’s change of career has brought back the issue of Patnaik’s political successor into focus.

“For the past 12 years, Pandian has been Patnaik’s eyes and ears, his most trusted aide. Every time the issue of his successor came up, Patnaik’s stock reply was that the people would choose their leader when the time came. He was perhaps being evasive because he had not found anyone he could fully trust. His search seems to have ended with Pandian, who may be groomed as his successor,” said a political commentator.

Also, added some of the bureaucrats close to him, Pandian has won over not just Patnaik’s faith but that of the BJD workers and the public, too.

“His dedication and hard work towards the development of Odisha has earned him the trust of the people and the respect of the BJD workers. His marriage to Sujata and his interest in the development of the State make him a son-in-law of Odisha. So, even if Pandian enters politics later as a non-Odia (his status as an outsider), it would not have much opposition here,” said an official.

As a commentator pointed out, Odisha’s Chief Minister between 1963 and 1965 was Biren Mitra, a non-Odia man.

Ramakrishna N
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