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Naveen Patnaik’s cabinet reshuffle: Has he lost the magic touch?

If Naveen wanted to send home a message of purging the party of corrupt ministers and bringing in fresh faces, he could have done so easily by picking quite a few from his band of 116 MLAs

Written by Debabrata Mohanty | Bhubaneshwar |
May 8, 2017 7:29:41 pm
Naveen Patnaik, Odisha, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, Odisha news, Odisha cabinet reshuffle, Naveen Patnaik drops ministers, BJP, Indian Express, India news Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. (File Photo)

Sunday’s massive ministry reshuffle and the purge a day before in the Biju Janata Dal, Odisha’s longest-surviving regional party, did create a record of sorts over the addition and subtraction of the sheer number of ministers. However, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s response to the resurgence of the BJP and his party’s relative poor performance in the panchayat polls, suggests that the exercise may not be the answer.

After keeping the expansion and purge in the ministry on hold for about a month fearing revolt in the wake of BJP’s national executive in Bhubaneswar last month, many expected Naveen to pick a younger team who could deliver before the party goes to the polls in less than two years. On Saturday, he got 10 of ministers, including the arrogant and controversial younger ministers like Arun Sahoo, Pranab Prakash Das and Sanjay Dasburma to resign from the Cabinet with the idea of drafting them into organisational work a la Kamraj Plan.

It was a good decision but their replacement with another set of 11 ministers with controversial ones like Maheswar Mohanty, Suryo Patro and Prafulla Samal may prove this to be an aimless reshuffle unlike the past one ones when such exercise showed him to be decisive. So what was the big idea behind reshuffle?

If Naveen wanted to send home a message of purging the party of corrupt non-performing ministers and bringing in fresh faces in their stead, he could have done so easily by picking quite a few from his band of 116 MLAs. But by choosing a controversial leader like Maheswar Mohanty as revenue minister, who in 2015 oversaw the construction of some of the sloppy infrastructure as head of the supervision committee of Lord Jagannath’s Nabakalebara festival, he seems to have ignored the chance to improve on his government’s image.

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As chairman of the Puri Municipality, he faced serious charges of illegal land allocation to several hotel projects in gross violation of the Coastal Regulation Zone Act. Though Mohanty was acquitted of sexual misdemeanour charges during his tenure as Odisha Assembly Speaker, his image has always been under a cloud.

In 2013, cooperation minister Suryo Patro, then revenue and disaster management minister, was accused by CAG of being a beneficiary of arbitrary land allotment policy of the state’s general administration department. The minister’s Hotel Ambassador International was allotted 1.010 acre land in Bhubaneswar by changing the land use zone from residential to commercial within a short time and he was asked to pay Rs 50 lakh per acre against the applicable commercial rate of Rs 75 lakh per acre, and that too in eight instalments.

After the payment of one instalment, the lease was changed in favour of Hotel South Pac Private Limited, a company promoted by his family members. The lease was finally cancelled in November 2012 as Patro’s family members could not construct any hotel.

Party chief whip Anant Das, who is not in the best of health, has also found a place in the ministry.

The non-representation of 18 districts including backward districts of Kalahandi-Bolangir and Koraput in the reshuffle seems to nullify any gains Naveen has tried to achieve with the reshuffle. Districts like Mayurbhanj, Kalahandi, Malkangiri and Sambalpur where BJP did well in zilla parishad polls have got no representation. Though tribals form about 24 per cent of Odisha’s population, no new tribal leader has found a place in the ministry. The only nod to tribals was the elevation of transport minister Ramesh Majhi to cabinet rank. What baffled everyone was over-representation from BJD’s fortress of Ganjam, already represented by Naveen Patnaik.

Peved over the lopsided expansion, supporters of Sambalpur MLA Dr Rasheswari Panigrahi today staged demonstration in their locality. In Sundargarh, veteran tribal leader Mangala Kishan’s too failed to make the cut leading to further revolt in the party. The discontent in the party is likely to rise in coming days in several other districts including districts like Jajpur, where the party did well in panchayat polls but has found no representation in the ministry.

Purging his ministry of controversial people whenever he felt his image was under threat has been a tested way of Naveen Patnaik in the last 17 years. On Sunday, he seemed to have lost that magic touch.

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