Last week, at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, Finance Minister P Chidambaram was asked if he worried that his aspiration of a 9 per cent growth might hit an internal security roadblock? Of course, he did, the FM answered with candour, and the government was working to overcome it. But, he added, he was not the right person to answer the question.
Even as he was speaking at the meeting, the release of four Korean executives working at the POSCO office in Jagatsinghpur district of Orissa was being negotiated. The executives were abducted by about 50 volunteers of the POSCO Pratirodh Sangram Samiti. Just two days before that, 11 casual workers employed by a labour contractor to build a road bridge in the area had been kidnapped.
There have been at least four such incidents of kidnapping and illegal detention in the past six months, and it has become so routine now that no cases were registered by the state administration till the hostages are released. The state government was remarkably relaxed about the incident -- as it was a second Saturday, a government holiday, there was no official to tell the POSCO brass what was going on.
It is for Orissa that this very finance minister had warm words of praise just last year. Speaking at Bhubaneshwar, Chidambaram hailed Orissa as one of the best states for investment. The Congress, which is not in power in Orissa and is likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future, was privately acid about the finance minister's endorsement of the Naveen Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party coalition government.
And that is what seems to be the problem. Extraneous factors, including the weaknesses of the finance minister's own party in the state, are keeping Patnaik in power. And all the indications are that despite a lower than average performance as a government (in which other state would its most prominent investors be kidnapped four times?) Patnaik may be looking at a third term as chief minister.
When the BJD-BJP coalition came to power first in 2000, it had to do little to establish its credentials. There were so many corruption charges against the discredited J B Patnaik government that when Naveen Patnaik began a cleanup operation, and even put bureaucrats behind bars, it took very little effort on his part to earn the image of a corruption-free administration.
Patnaik was ruthless and savage in establishing his leadership in the party. He dropped ministers against whom there was even a whisper of corruption, using this as a way to fell opponents with a smile. State elections were due in 2005; he advanced them to coincide with general elections in 2004. He fought this round on the back of Atal Bihari Vajpayee's popularity and the advantages accruing from the Congress's installation of J B Patnaik as PCC chief just before the elections. For reasons that are not clear to anyone, the people of Orissa voted for Vajpayee, the leader and BJD, the party. The BJP's tally suffered and Patnaik became even more powerful.
In his second term, Patnaik focused on getting investment for the state. POSCO, Arcelor Mittal, Tata Steel came and money began pouring in. Now, Patnaik needed the bureaucracy to manage the flow of money and get things done. Today, there have been incidents when ministers have written notes seeking transfer of officials and the secretary has overruled this.
You could argue that there's nothing wrong with this. But because bureaucrats don't have to win elections, they have little at stake -- they don't have to seek the approval of the people, only their minister. Three things have pushed Orissa off the rapid development trajectory -- the deterioration in law and order; the utter thoughtlessness on land acquisition for industrialisation; and the state's total disregard for the health infrastructure available to its people.
Few know that the Naxalite movement is expanding its base faster in Orissa than any other state in India, spreading from its traditional bastion in south Orissa to new territories in west Orissa and even in the coastal areas. In March last year, Naxalites attacked a jail in Gajapati district and freed prisoners, killing two policemen. Remember, Orissa has two Naxal-hit neighbours - Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh - and unless its law and order machinery is exceptionally efficient, is deeply vulnerable to the Naxal threat.
Industrialisation is all very well, but what about those who are displaced? The Kalinganagar firing (January 2006) is to Orissa what Nandigram was to West Bengal. The result is, while Jindal Steel, Arcelor Mittal, Posco and Tata Steel made big investment plans, there is no progress on the ground.
But what must shame bureaucrats and politicians of Orissa alike is the callousness with which the health management of the state has been handled. Whether it is female foeticide or fake medicines or the outbreak of cholera in the Koraput-Kalahandi districts in August, there is little to show that it is the people who come first.
There is no second line of leadership after Patnaik. The Naxalites are getting stronger and if the Congress replaces its state leadership with younger, more credible individuals, Naveen Patnaik could face a serious threat. Till then, there is a good chance he will advance the assembly elections yet again -- and will head towards a third term.