'Women Power, Clean Image': Naveen Patnaik Revamps Cabinet With Eye on 2024 Polls

By accommodating more women and dropping some controversial leaders from the cabinet, the Biju Janata Dal chief is gearing up for assembly and general elections.

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Bhubaneswar: Barely a week after completing three years in his fifth term as the chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik has effected a major reshuffle of his cabinet with an eye on the 2024 assembly and general elections.

By dropping controversial and non-performing ministers, Patnaik has sent a clear message that there is no place for tainted and inefficient leaders in his government.

At the same time, he has sought to consolidate women voters by increasing the number of female ministers to five.

Earlier, there were only two – Tukuni Sahu and Padmini Dian. While the latter, who was the minister of state for textiles, has been shown the door for apparent poor performance, Patnaik has retained Tukuni and inducted Basanti Hembram, Rita Sahu, Pramila Mallick and Usha Devi.

The chief minister, who was the first in the country to reserve 50% seats in panchayati raj institutions for women, has been championing gender justice since he took up the reins of the state in 2000. He has also created a full-fledged department of Mission Shakti for the economic development of women, mainly through income generating self-help group (SHG) activities. Considering that this might be the last reshuffle of his ministry before the 2024 elections – in which women are set to play a big role, the chief minister has made a clever move by enhancing the representation of women in his ministry.

Significantly, the reshuffle comes in the immediate wake of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)’s thumping victory in the Brajarajnagar by-poll, which was won by Alaka Mohanty, the widow of former MLA Kishore Mohanty. Her victory margin of 65,000 votes was proof, if one were needed, that the BJD continues to rule supreme even in western Odisha – generally considered to be the stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Before her, he chose Rita Sahu, the widow of former Congress MLA Subal Sahu, as his party’s candidate in the Bijepur by-poll. She won with a convincing margin and has now been made a minister. Tukuni Sahu is also the widow of a BJD leader.

Among the five women ministers, Usha Devi and Pramila Mallick are the most experienced and have held cabinet assignments in the past. Tukuni Sahu has also been a minister for the past three years. Together, they could power the BJD in the electoral battle in 2024.

Odisha governor ganeshi Lal swears in 20 ministers in the Naveen Patnaik cabinet on June 5, 2022. Photo: Twitter/@GovernorOdisha

‘Clean’ imagine

Yet another focal point of Patnaik’s ministry revamp has been on a ‘clean’ public image, with emphasis on non-controversial leaders. Among the ministers dropped by him are some powerful leaders such as former law and panchayati raj minister Pratap Jena, higher education minister Arun Sahoo and minister of state (home) Dibya Shankar Mishra. The latter became controversial after his name was dragged into the Kalahandi teacher Mamita Meher murder case – triggering a political storm in the state. The minister, who hails from the Kalahandi district, was accused of shielding the prime accused. Opposition parties had campaigned relentlessly for his ouster from the cabinet, but Patnaik had refused to oblige them then but has shunted him out now.

Pratap Jena’s name had figured in connection with the murder of septuagenarian BJP leader Kulamani Baral, the former chairman of the Mahanga Panchayat Samiti, last year. Baral was hacked to death along with his 80-year-old associate Dibyasingh Baral near Jankoti village in the Mahanaga area while returning home on a motorcycle.

The murders triggered protests across the state, with the BJP taking the lead in demanding the resignation of Jena. In this case too, Patnaik kept mum at the time but eventually axed the powerful minister.

Similarly, the higher education minister Arun Sahu has been dropped. His name cropped up in the murder of a minor girl in Nayagarh in 2020. The parents of the girl, who was kidnapped and killed allegedly by a person who was close to ruling party politicians in Nayagarh, had attempted to die by self-immolation in front of the state assembly. They had alleged that Sahu was shielding the accused.

“By showing the door to such leaders the chief minister has sent out a message that he only wants clean leaders. This is a good tactic with elections only two years away,” said political analyst Shashi Kant Mishra.

The cabinet revamp effected by Patnaik shows that he has rewarded hardworking leaders loyal to him such as Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak and Pratap Kesari Deb. Both have returned as ministers purely on the basis of merit. They worked relentlessly for the party in the recently held panchayat and urban polls and ensured its victory. They were also wise enough to keep their heads down and avoid controversies. Young leader Jagannath Saraka, who is from a tribal community, has been promoted to the cabinet rank as Patnaik was impressed with his performance as a minister of state with independent charge for ST and SC Development, Minorities and Backward Classes Department in the last cabinet.

Sources in the BJD said that some of the leaders who have been dropped from the cabinet are likely to be drafted for organisational work and will be given senior positions in the party structure. This has been Patnaik’s style during revamps.

In the past, he has dropped some senior leaders with the sole purpose of engaging them in organisational work. One example is Jajpur MLA Pranab Prakash Das aka Bobby. Considered the number two in the BJD hierarchy he was the energy minister of the state before being taken out of the cabinet and entrusted with party work. He now holds the post of general secretary (organisation) and takes all the major decisions on behalf of Patnaik – the party president.

There are good chances that some of the dropped ministers – especially experienced ones like Padmnabh Behera – will be assigned important roles in the BJD, a party leader who did not wish to be named told The Wire.