On May 31, 2019, two days after Naveen Patnaik took oath as Chief Minister of Odisha for the fifth time, a photo appeared on social media of a smiling Patnaik seated at his residence Naveen Niwas, with V K Pandian standing behind his chair.
For many in the state, it was their first glimpse of Patnaik’s powerful private secretary, a man who had spent years by the CM’s side, but always out of the frame. That day, it was the CMO that put out the photo, while Biju Janata Dal (BJD) leaders shared it, hailing Patnaik as much as Pandian for the party’s return to power.
Four years later, the photograph hasn’t lost its relevance, with Pandian still the man in focus.
On October 23, Pandian, the 2000-batch IAS officer who as private secretary to the Odisha CM was considered the “most powerful bureaucrat” in the state, took voluntary retirement. A day later, he was appointed chairman of Nabin Odisha and Vision 5T, the Patnaik government’s flagship initiatives, with the rank of Cabinet minister.
On Friday, October 27, there was an unusual rush outside ‘Naveen Niwas’, the CM’s residence in Bhubaneswar, as representatives of civil services associations turned up to wish Pandian on his new role. Soon, the 48-year-old turned up in his trademark white shirt and trousers and shook hands with each of his visitors and warmly accepted their bouquets.
It wasn’t a very unusual sight for those who have watched Pandian over the last few months as he took on a public role, touring all 147 Assembly constituencies on the CM’s behalf and attending ‘grievance meetings’ where he interacted with people, addressed them and announced schemes like politicians do. During these meetings, for which he took his own camera crew along, the once camera-shy officer would ensure no key moment went uncaptured. On Instagram, Pandian has more than 1 million followers.
While his public appearances fuelled speculation of his entry into politics and led to attacks from the Opposition, Pandian has remained unruffled.
During his 23 years in power, Naveen Patnaik has always handpicked trusted officials to help him with running the state. None, however, has enjoyed the status Pandian does.
Originally from Tamil Nadu, Pandian made his mark as collector of the state’s larger districts, such as Mayurbhanj and Ganjam, which is Patnaik’s home district. This is believed to have drawn Patnaik’s attention to Pandian, and by May 2011, he found himself in the CM’s office as his private secretary. Pandian continued in the post until his retirement from service on October 23 and, unlike many of his colleagues, never chose Central deputation.
What eased Pandian’s entry into Patnaik’s inner sanctum was the falling out between the CM and Pyarimohan Mohapatra, an IAS officer turned politician turned key advisor, around 2012. Many feared the BJD would slip out of Patnaik’s hands given the clout Mohapatra wielded in the party. But Patnaik surprised the doomsayers, with many crediting Pandian for steering the ship in Mohapatra’s absence.
“There is no doubt that Pandian is very hardworking and delivers on key responsibilities, helping him win the confidence of the CM. He has played a crucial role in various crises. Some of the successful schemes which make Naveen popular as a pro-people leader are Pandian’s brainchild,” said a senior bureaucrat on Pandian, requesting anonymity.
Yet, it wasn’t until 2019 — when Patnaik took oath for the fifth time — that many knew of the man.
The 5T scheme that followed soon after was acknowledged as Pandian’s brainchild, and touted as an initiative that would “overhaul” the administrative apparatus. The Ts stand for transparency, teamwork, technology and time, leading to transformation. Then came ‘Mo Sarkar’ — a scheme to bring the government to the people’s doorsteps.
Key services and projects of almost all departments are now covered under 5T, which is directly supervised by Pandian and his team at the Chief Minister’s Office. During Covid, Pandian took the lead in updating the state’s healthcare facilities and was seen by the CM’s side during meetings held virtually.
But his tours set the tone for what was to follow — in his meetings with women self-help groups, students and farmers, Pandian was no stiff bureaucrat; instead, speaking flawless Odia, he took effortlessly to his new role.
A recent video of Pandian’s interaction with students went viral where he is seen narrating his journey from a small Tamil Nadu village to becoming an IAS officer. He talks about cycling around 20 km to college, and exhorts students to work hard for these few years “to be happy for the remaining 50 years in life”. Pandian’s wife Sujata R Karthikeyan, also an IAS officer of the 2000 batch, is Secretary, Mission Shakti Department.
Pandian’s public appearances triggered sharp reactions from Opposition parties, with the BJP and Congress workers holding protests wherever the ex-IAS officer held his ‘grievance redressal’ meetings. Both the Opposition parties lodged separate petitions to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), accusing Pandian of violating service conduct rules.
Pandian’s rising graph has left many in the BJD jittery too. Editor-politician Soumya Ranjan Patnaik had questioned Pandian’s “chopper ride” to districts.
But none of this would do anything to diminish Pandian clout.
With his resignation from the services, Pandian’s entry into politics is now considered a near-certainty. Many point to “hints” from his recent tours to say that he is fast learning the tricks of the trade. On August 19, while on a visit to Satyabadi in Puri, Pandian faced an ink attack from someone in the crowd. While police detained the attacker, Pandian is said to have told them to set the youth free.