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Naveen Patnaik posted a message on social media earlier this week along with a video of him strolling in the Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi, relaxed, smiling, and in a light blue kurta – a rarity for a political leader who over the years has stuck to all-white in public appearance.
“The marble dome of Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi is an epitome of magnificence with intricate inlay work inspired by Mogul architecture. I am told, the artisans and the marble also came from Makrana village in Rajasthan,” the chief minister of Odisha posted towards the end of a 10-day foreign trip that was his first in 10 years. “A bit of India everywhere.”
In isolation, it has a ring to it, that of a chief minister with a keen interest in history and heritage – he is one of the founding members of the non-profit Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) – taking out time to appreciate modern-day architectural work. When seen along with another message he posted a few days earlier, it sends out beeping signals, politics and some history written all over them.
On June 22, the chief minister posted photographs of him meeting the Pope in Vatican City. “It has been an absolute pleasure meeting His Holiness Pope Francis in Vatican City. Thanked him for the warm audience and wished him good health and a long life,” Patnaik posted.
The meeting with the Pope was made public and was well publicised – he is the first chief minister of an Indian state to do so – days before Patnaik flew to Rome. The mosque visit was known only when it came to be known. Trip details to Dubai, apart from an investors’ meeting, which he attended on Thursday, were not shared. At least, not as widely.
The two visits – to the Pope and the mosque – send out different, unaligned signals, depending on which side one is on.
For Patnaik’s admirers and the supporters of his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) – the party named after his father and political stalwart Biju Patnaik – it reaffirms the secular image of their leader who at the end of this tenure will be the longest-serving chief minister of India.
To Patnaik’s critics, it may appear to be an effort by the chief minister trying to dust, if not desperately, some saffron that may have settled on his sparkling white kurta. Perhaps, an attempt to shrug off and counter the allegation of peddling soft Hindutva by going on a temple redevelopment spree ahead of the last elections in 2019.
The redevelopment programme, running into hundreds of crores, came at a time when the BJD was looking to counter the BJP, once a coalition partner that has emerged as the main Opposition party in Odisha, taking the space of the Congress party.
With the BJP nibbling at its vote base, riding on the popularity surge of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Odisha in the run-up to the elections, Patnaik’s government announced a string of measures for the redevelopment and beautification of temples across the state. The most prominent among the redevelopment work was the plan for the Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri, over which the BJD and the BJP fought a shrill battle politically as well as in court until recently over allegations of damage to the 12th-century shrine.
From a national perspective, though, the meeting with the Pope and the visit to the mosque send out a much bigger signal. That of a leader of a party who has followed a “state-first” policy while considering alignments on matters of politics stepping up to make space for himself on the national platform.
With his party winning almost all elections, including rural polls and civic polls, since 2019, Patnaik finds himself in a comfortable zone, confident enough to play a prominent role in Opposition politics.
While Patnaik has, on a number of occasions, backed the BJP government at the Centre, at the risk of being termed an ally, this trip abroad may have given him the opportunity to position himself on the secular platform. The doubts though will continue to linger for critics.
Incidentally, a day after he returns home from the foreign trip, Patnaik will be completing a full circle. On Friday, the chief minister will be in Puri for the Rath Yatra – Odisha’s biggest religious event that is attended by lakhs of devotees from across India and the world.
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