By Sandeep Sahu
Bhubaneswar: There has not been a single chief minister in the history of independent India who does not speak the language of the state and still gets to rule the state uninterrupted for 12 long years — except Naveen Patnaik, that is.
There are only two sentences that the Odisha Chief Minister can speak extempore in Odia: the customary "Bhai o' Bhauni mane! Apana mananku samastanku mora namaskar" ("Brothers and sisters! I salute all of you") at every public meeting before he switches over to his strictly functional Hindi and the formal "Kemiti Achhanti?" ("How are you?") in less public gatherings. Every time he has tried to go beyond his brief, he has unwittingly provided comic relief to those around him.
The speeches that he has no choice but to deliver in Odia are painstakingly written in the Roman script for the benefit of the chief minister by his minions. (Mercifully, they are short.) Despite that, there have been innumerable occasions when Naveen made guffaws or has muffed his lines or words and has invited suppressed laughter from the assembled crowd.
On his first campaign trail in the by-election for the Aska parliamentary constituency that had fallen vacant after the death of his legendary father Biju Patnaik back in 1997, Naveen Patnaik had asked the people for 'some time' to learn Odia. Well, it seems 15 years has not been long enough!
During his first stint as chief minister from 2000, Naveen even had a tutor, a retired professor RK Mishra, appointed to 'teach' him Odia. But credible accounts of the time suggest that the good professor did not have much to do except wait in the ante room for the elusive call from the chief minister to go in. It took the teacher a few months to realize that his illustrious 'pupil' is just not interested. He stopped coming one day. And Naveen has stopped talking about learning Odia ever since.
But his stubborn refusal to learn Odia has not stopped him from becoming the darling of his people as evident from his three successive election victories, especially the last one in 2009. Weird though it may sound, these successive victories have perhaps convinced him that his popularity with the masses has a lot to do with his inability (or is it unwillingness) to speak Odia: a kind of USP, if you please. He has actually started believing that the moment he starts speaking in Odia — like other Odias do — he would become part of the hoi polloi and consequently lose his chemistry with the masses!
As strategy it works. First, it keeps the pesky party workers at a distance. They are naturally nervous while opening up to him. It also keeps off even senior ministers not conversant in Hindi and English — most of them are not — raking up silly party matters. Naveen, distrustful of his own party leaders as he is, depends more on the bureaucrats to communicate even on political matters. The standoffishness has changed a bit after chief trouble-shooter Pyari Mohan Mohapatra’s supposed coup bid though. However, more on that story later.
Public speaking has never really been Naveen's forte. He rarely speaks without the handy aid of a text diligently prepared by his trusted bureaucrats even in the language he is comfortable in: English. Every major announcement made by him - including the announcement of the suspension of rebel leader Pyari Mohan Mohapatra and some of his perceived supporters in the wake of the failed coup bid in May-end this year - has been read out from a prepared text.
Reporters of local television channels say they have to submit their questionnaire for the day to his office in the morning. The chief minister ticks off the ones that he does not want to answer and then asks his bureaucrats to prepare the answers for the rest.
However, his disastrous Odia and his functional Hindi is frequently coming in the way of his new found bonhomie with the party worker. BJD spin doctors, however, dismiss any such suggestion. "Naveen Babu may not speak Odia. But he has a unique ability to read logon ke maan ki bhasha (the language of the people's mind)," explains a senior BJD leader. The question is; how does the average Odia - innocent of English and lacking the supernatural gifts of their leader to read other people's mind without speaking or even properly understanding their language — read Naveen's mind?