Breaking the ‘babu’ ceiling- V.K.Pandian in a bold new Avtar to shape state’s progress

The shift in Pandian's career trajectory began with a whirlwind tour across the state in March this year


By- Dibyajit Sahu

Group Editor

In the political theatre of India, where politicians often steal the limelight, the role of bureaucrats can often be overlooked. VK Pandian stands to be opposite to that phrase, has proven that the backstage players can wield immense influence in shaping a state’s destiny. His recent career shift has set the stage for a potential transformation in Odisha’s political landscape. As the American writer Mary McCarthy once wrote: “Bureaucracy the rule of no one has become the modern form of despotism.”


It all started more than 20 years back. Wajahat Habibullah, while serving as the director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Mussoorie, made a fateful call to his school friend, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. The call introduced Patnaik to VK Pandian, a freshly-minted IAS officer who also dabbled in writing movie scripts, a shared interest of their group. This call not only changed Pandian’s career trajectory but also set in motion a journey that would reshape Odisha’s political landscape. Little did Habibullah know, his phone call would set into motion a series of events that would not only change Pandian’s life but also shape the future of Odisha’s political destiny.


Pandian was initially allotted the Punjab cadre, but fate had other plans. His marriage to his batchmate, Sujata, who hailed from Odisha, prompted an inter-cadre transfer suggestion, and Pandian got his first posting in Odisha in 2002. Little did he know that this decision would lead him to become one of the most influential figures in the state.


Over 21 years of dedicated service in Odisha, Pandian has emerged as an efficient administrator. In the last 12 years, he worked directly with Chief Minister Patnaik, overseeing the state’s development projects and earning the chief minister’s unwavering trust. His remarkable journey in public service reached a crossroads when he made the audacious decision to opt for voluntary retirement from the IAS. This decision was like taking a leap of faith, akin to a mountaineer scaling Mount Everest without a safety net – it was a risky move, but the reward was worth the risk.


Pandian’s application for voluntary retirement was swiftly approved by the Centre, bypassing the mandatory notice period, thanks to Patnaik’s intervention at the highest levels. This move signals a significant career shift for Pandian, as he takes on an enhanced role in the administration, overseeing the 5T (Transformational Initiatives) and Nabin Odisha, a concept aimed at transforming the state. Pandian’s sudden thrust into a higher-level role signals a bold new chapter in his career, one that will have a significant impact on the future of Odisha.


Pandian is expected to join the Patnaik-led Biju Janata Dal (BJD) soon, a move that has sent ripples through Odisha’s political landscape. Speculations abound about whether Pandian will become the political heir to the 77-year-old Patnaik, a topic that has captured the state’s imagination. Pandian is seen as someone who can bridge the gap between the party’s rural and urban wings, as well as someone who can reach out to the younger generation. He is also seen as a potential successor to Patnaik, who has ruled the state for more than two decades.


The shift in Pandian’s career trajectory began with a whirlwind tour across the state in March this year. What followed was unprecedented – a groundswell of public support. People showered him with flowers, women sought his counsel, and the youth clamored for selfies. His interactions with the public led to an unexpected emergence as a political leader in the making.


But Pandian’s newfound role was not without controversy. Opposition parties accused him of engaging in “political work,” leading to sharp criticisms. Nevertheless, Pandian has now stepped out of the bureaucracy, with his focus likely to shift towards the upcoming Lok Sabha and assembly elections.


Pandian’s vision aligns with Patnaik’s dream of an empowered Odisha, which revolves around the 5T framework – teamwork, technology, transparency, transformation, and timeliness. This move opens the door for Pandian to play a more significant role in shaping the state’s political landscape.


The question that lingers is whether a Tamil can find acceptance in culturally diverse Odisha. Pandian, well-versed in the Odia language and married to an Odia, is a staunch devotee of Lord Jagannath, the state’s presiding deity. His deep connection with the state’s culture and traditions may well transcend regional barriers. Pandian’s connection to the state’s culture and traditions, as well as his fluency in the Odia language, suggest that he will be able to easily integrate into Odisha’s diverse environment. His devotion to Lord Jagannath is also a strong indication of his willingness to become a part of the state’s culture.


Odisha’s inclusive Jagannath culture has a history of embracing outsiders, as seen in the cases of Sikh MLAs and leaders from different states. As the political landscape evolves, retired IAS officers like Pandian are making strategic moves to influence the state’s future.


Pandian’s journey, from a young athlete to a dedicated civil servant, filmmaker at heart, and now a potential political leader, is a testament to his versatility and determination. His accolades in various fields, including receiving the Helen Keller award for his work with persons with disabilities, reflect his commitment to social causes. His accomplishments are a testament to the power of his ambition and dedication, and to his commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.


VK Pandian, a man of simplicity, who shares a frugal lifestyle with Chief Minister Patnaik, is poised to make his mark on Odisha’s political scene. As Odisha readies itself for the upcoming elections, Pandian’s journey from the corridors of bureaucracy to the political arena is a fascinating narrative to watch. His winning start in politics could set the stage for a rewarding political career in the state.


In VK Pandian, Odisha may have found a political dynamo who can continue to transform the state’s destiny, alongside a chief minister who has held the reins for decades. Ronald Reagan once said: “The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things. He is the one that gets the people to do the greatest things.

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