Pyaribabu: the man who shapes Orissa CM’s decisions

By Jatindra Dash, IANS,

Bhubaneswar : House No. A-111 in Sahid Nagar, one of the most expensive residential areas in the heart of Orissa capital Bhubaneswar, is an elegant two-storeyed structure. It is home to a 69-year-old former Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer who holds no official position in the Naveen Patnaik government.

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Yet, most senior officials and ministers of the government will rush there, files in hand, when summoned. Such is the clout wielded by Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, popularly known as Pyaribabu.

Pyaribabu, a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) Rajya Sabha member, is widely regarded as Chief Minister Patnaik’s mentor, the man who, working quietly behind the scenes, has charted the meteoric rise of the political greenhorn of a decade ago and honed him into an astute politician.

Patnaik reportedly takes no major political or administrative decision without consulting Pyaribabu, and it is he who was blamed by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for orchestrating the end of an enduring alliance after 11 successful years.

Clad always in white kurta-pyjama, Pyaribabu, robust for his age, plays host to not only bureaucrats and ministers but also industrialists, ticket-seekers, select journalists and sundry favour-seekers.

As a bureaucrat, the left-leaning Pyaribabu had served Biju Patnaik – Naveen Patnaik’s legendary father – when he was chief minister. And he took it upon himself to hand-hold his son as he ventured into the murky world of Orissa politics to claim his father’s legacy.

“No important decision can be taken without the prior knowledge and approval of Pyaribabu,” attests a senior bureaucrat who did not wish to be named.

The 1963 batch IAS officer’s involvement in politics began when Patnaik senior appointed him principal secretary during his tenure as chief minister from 1990 to 1995.

The duo reportedly struck up an excellent working relationship, based on mutual respect. But he paid for this proximity when the Congress party returned to power. He was shunted out as the head of a state-run academy and subsequently retired in 1998.

But he was back in the limelight again when he was appointed director of a government undertaking – a job that is believed to have been swung for him by Naveen Patnaik, who entered politics after his father’s death and became a minister at the centre in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Pyaribabu has since been a guide to Patnaik junior, often flying to Delhi to help him with his work in the government as well as politics.

It was a cakewalk for Patnaik in the 2000 elections because of a Vajpayee wave and the sympathy that he received in his home state as the son of the late Biju Patnaik, even though he was an outsider who did not even know the local language.

But, say insiders, his subsequent success at the hustings – in the assembly elections that followed and in the 2004 Lok Sabha polls – were guided by Pyaribabu.

It was on his advice, say party insiders, that Patnaik successfully sidelined senior politicians who were potential challengers, including stalwarts like Srikanta Jena, Bijoy Mohapatra, Dilip Ray, Ramkrushna Patnaik and Nalinikanta Mohanty. Most of these leaders are now in the Congress or the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Insiders also say that it was Pyaribabu, an old-school bureaucrat nurtured on the Nehruvian ideal of secularism, who was instrumental in pushing Patnaik to part ways with the BJP after the prolonged Kandhamal communal riots targeting Christians in August-September last year that were stoked by Hindu rightwing outfits.

Patnaik was apparently distraught when the BJP did little to rein in its fringe constituents.

It was then that Pyaribabu, who was once the state’s chief electoral officer for over five years, used his considerable experience to devise a poll strategy that sought to test the BJD’s strength independently.

It was on his advice, say party insiders, that Patnaik embarked on the campaign trail in a big way even for civic elections. The successes notched up by the party, convinced the duo that the BJD could flourish on its own.

It is again on Pyaribabu’s counsel that Patnaik has apparently refused to commit himself to the Third Front.

The veteran bureaucrat believes it is in the state’s interest that the BJD does business with whoever comes to power at the centre. It is such pragmatism that makes Pyaribabu the adviser he is.

(Jatindra Dash can be contacted at [email protected])