Modi vs Who? The Rise of the Regional Supremo

Politics allows for no illness or any sign of physical vulnerability, especially at election time. This might explain why the notoriously camera shy Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik had to telecast a video of him working out in the gym, if only to allay persistent rumours of his failing health. Patnaik, one of the country's longest serving chief ministers and arguably the most enigmatic, has spent the last few months criss-crossing the length and breadth of his state in the oppressive heat of an Odisha summer. He often travels in an AC bus, appearing from a lift to briefly address his people, before disappearing into his inscrutable private world. He can scarcely speak Oriya, is not a natural orator, has no glitzy marketing machine by his side, and yet remains undefeated in over two decades in politics. In an election where the entire focus is almost obsessively on the Modi model of high-decibel political rhetoric, is there an alternate ‘Naveen model’ that perhaps offers a counter to the BJP's larger than life mascot?

Right through this election campaign, there has been a question that has been asked persistently: Modi versus who? While Rahul Gandhi has shown an earnest energy, he remains a fair distance away from Mr Modi in the national popularity stakes. Somehow, he hasn't been fully able to shake off the tag of being an 'entitled dynast', someone whose political career is the result of his family legacy. Ironically, Patnaik too is a dynast, the son of the formidable Biju Patnaik, whose death in 1997 suddenly transformed his son's life from the dazzle of Lutyens Delhi to the more prosaic universe of Bhubaneshwar's Naveen Niwas. And yet, from privileged dynast to regional strongman, Naveen babu is part of a constellation of state leaders who offer a counter narrative to the one nation, one party, one leader chant. From K Chandrashekhar Rao in Telangana to Mamata Banerjee in Bengal to a Patnaik in Odisha, each of these leaders, atleast for now, is challenging the Modi monopoly over the political discourse within their bastions.

Make no mistake, in the age of the elected autocrat, each of these regional bosses often display the same authoritarian tendencies they accuse the ‘national’ Big Boss of. The Biju Janata Dal is a one person show as is the Trinamool, or indeed the Telangana Rashtra Samiti. If anyone is allowed entry into the charmed inner circle, he or she must almost necessarily be a family member. Patnaik is a slight exception here since he is emblematic of another emerging trend of the 'single man' politician and whose party's future without him at the helm appears distinctly bleak and uncertain. By contrast, Mamata, a 'single woman’ politician, appears to have slowly carved a space for her nephew as her successor while Rao in Telangana has kept all crucial posts within his family.

As regional parties, these satraps can get away with their despotic behavior because of their visible connect with their voter. There is a local connectedness -- based on well-entrenched parochial loyalties or personal charisma -- that sustains these leaders and allows them to get away with much more than a national party leadership could. Would any national party leader, for example, get away as KCR did without even a functional cabinet for almost two months after his December election victory? Or as Mamata Banerjee does by disallowing her rivals at times from even undertaking routine political meetings?

The power of the regional satrap primarily stems from their complete control over the state administration. Most of them work through a tightly knit group of well-trained bureaucrats and police officers whose loyalty is expected to be to the Supreme Leader above all else. It is no secret for example that the most powerful man in Odisha after the chief minister is one of his hand-picked bureaucrats: the Supremo trusts government officials much more than their political colleagues who are often seen as potential rivals.

In effect, these politicians have been able to create a single window clearance system, making their governance style more focussed and decisive, if at times mercurial and autocratic. And because their politics is rooted in a more limited geographical area they can connect faster and with greater effectiveness than their 'national' counterparts. A 'national' leader, after all, has to work within a complex federal system and an unending maze of regulations which a regional leader can easily circumvent, leading to accusations of corruption and cronyism but also of greater efficiency in delivery.

It should come as no surprise that Patnaik's Kaalia scheme of direct cash benefits to small and marginal farmers, landless labour and share-croppers, or indeed, KCR's Rythu Bandhu scheme for agriculturists is seen as superior to what both the BJP and Congress have had to offer to the kisan. Or that Mamata's 'kanyashree' project for the girl-child has received unqualified support. The 'localised' nature of their appeal means that these leaders know precisely who their target audience is, and what it takes to address their needs, creating a political-administration system that is astutely micro-managed.

Which brings one back to the central question: Modi versus who? The 'maha-milawat' that the BJP is so dismissive of includes a coalition of many of these regional leaders. Add the DMK, Jagan Mohan Reddy/Chandrababu Naidu, and indeed, even an Akhilesh and Mayawati to the troika of leaders one has focussed upon in this column, and there is a possible 150 plus seat grouping in the next Lok Sabha that could offer a potential challenge to any 'national' leadership that is contemptuous of an increasingly federalised India. Ironically, if Mr Modi is unable to repeat his remarkable single party majority of 2014, it is these leaders even he -- a one time Gujarat satrap -- may well have to turn to as prospective allies in the future. Which is why even if a United Front-like 1990s experiment appears unlikely, don’t rule out a greater role for the regional supremos in any post May 23 ruling dispensation.

Post-script: While interviewing Mr Patnaik I forgot to ask him a question that has always intrigued me: is being single a marker for success in 24 x 7 competitive politics? A few days later, he answered my question on Twitter: ''Being single is no mantra for success nor is it lonely. Four and a half crore people of Odisha are family for me'. It's the kind of sharp answer which at a national level is seen to make the 'karmayogi' Mr Modi too such an attractive proposition for his supporters!

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