Bijoy Mohapatra, the prime mover behind the formation of the BJD, was least perturbed to see Naveen growing in stature as a politician. A long-time aide of Biju Patnaik, he had been his irrigation minister and number two in the government between 1990 and 1995. He was short and slender, but, colleagues insisted, he had tall ambitions for himself.

He was a consummate politician, known for his astuteness. But he was not a people’s man or a mass leader, and his influence was confined mostly to his home district of Kendrapara and the adjoining districts in coastal Odisha. His strength lay in back-room politics. He was an organisation man. Most BJD MLAs were hand-picked by him and owed their loyalty to him. Since he had the support of the majority of the legislators and was the most experienced of politicians in the fledgling BJD, Mohapatra was made the chairman of its powerful political affairs committee.

Those close to Mohapatra thought he was destined to be the next Odisha chief minister.

The ruling Congress was hugely unpopular and Naveen was inexperienced, besides being away in Delhi as a union minister. The chief minister’s crown, they felt, was for Mohapatra to take.

With the assembly elections of 2000 drawing closer, Mohapatra was busy strategising and selecting candidates for the impending polls. Not that the party needed much strategising, given the unpopularity of the ruling Congress. It was said that even a bamboo pole nominated by the BJD would win the elections resoundingly against a Congress candidate.

As the election date neared, Mohapatra had a spring in his step. He filed his nomination papers early for the election from his home constituency of Patkura in Kendrapara district. Other party nominees had been chosen and had also filed their papers. The stage was set for a BJD sweep of the state when the all-powerful PAC met at the New Marrion hotel in Bhubaneswar for a final stocktaking. It was the last day for filing of nominations and the deadline was only hours away when Mohapatra and other PAC members trooped into the hotel.

It was a clear, crisp day when the PAC session began. Though a union minister, Naveen was contesting the assembly election from Hinjili, in his Aska parliamentary constituency, but all of Mohapatra’s men felt their leader was on course for bigger things. Even if Naveen was to become the chief minister, they knew the coveted chair would come to Mohapatra sooner or later.

Mohapatra had chosen most of the candidates and they were all his men. And who hadn’t heard of what N Chandrababu Naidu had done to his father-in-law, NT Rama Rao (NTR), in Andhra Pradesh? NTR, the matinee idol, had won a resounding victory for his Telugu Desam Party and become chief minister for the third time, only to be dethroned by his son-in-law, who walked away with most of the legislators, the party and the chief ministership.

The PAC meeting, with all members except Naveen in attendance, continued well after lunch. At around 2 p.m., Mohapatra’s mobile rang. At the other end was a frantic supporter from his home constituency in Patkura. The caller’s voice was charged with emotion. What he said left Mohapatra dumbfounded.

While he was chairing the PAC meeting in Bhubaneswar, Naveen, as president of the party, had cancelled Mohapatra’s nomination as the candidate from Patkura and chosen another as the party candidate.

With just hours left for the deadline, the new candidate, Atanu Sabyasachi, had filed his papers a little while earlier. Mohapatra was devastated. His mobile buzzed again and again with more supporters from Patkura calling to give him the news. The PAC meeting ended abruptly. All the party’s top leaders were present and they expressed shock at what Naveen had done. They sought to console Mohapatra, but struggled to find the right words.

Undoubtedly, Mohapatra would one day have challenged Naveen’s supremacy by exercising his clout in the party and Naveen would possibly have been bested. But Naveen had pre-empted him and, with one blow, left them all speechless.

Politics anywhere is treacherous. Friends turn foe routinely and no one really knows who is a well-wisher and who an enemy and for how long. Odisha politics was no different – it had seen its share of skulduggery and back-stabbing. But this was a new low. Naveen’s supporters said it was a masterstroke. His opponents said it was Machiavellian.

Though outwardly a soft and gentle person, who constantly talked of propriety, Naveen had masterminded and executed a plot that left Mohapatra high and dry.

Patkura, from where Mohapatra would have to file a new nomination to contest, was a two-hour drive from Bhubaneswar and it was already past two, with just about an hour left for the deadline to pass. There was no way he could make it there and file fresh nomination papers as an independent candidate.

The plan to deny Mohapatra a chance to contest the election had apparently been set in motion the previous night. Atanu Sabyasachi was an ordinary journalist for an Odia daily, with a political background. His father was once a legislator from Patkura long before the constituency became Mohapatra’s citadel.

Taken into confidence and briefed about the plan, Sabyasachi reached Patkura with two sets of papers, one cancelling Mohapatra’s nomination and the other his own nomination papers bearing Naveen’s signature. He waited patiently and silently. As the deadline approached, he went in and filed the papers.

Naveen, his colleagues realised, wasn’t as soft and gentle as he projected himself to be. Naveen the politician had shown the ability to outsmart the smartest of them. It was only then that they realised why Naveen had insisted, during the registration of the BJD, that the ultimate power of nominating and cancelling party candidates be vested with him and not the PAC. He had long ago worked out its utility in the future. That he was capable of plotting so much in advance struck fear among the most seasoned of politicians. What else did Naveen have up his sleeve, they must have wondered.

It was an operation steeped in stealth. Even after the event not too many people talked about it openly and Naveen escaped public censure. People continued to see him as principled and decent, unlike other politicians.

There was some degree of sympathy for Mohapatra in the immediate wake and some probably disapproved of the manner in which he had been denied the chance of being in the electoral fray, but no one did anything about it. Most other PAC members were themselves contesting the elections and rebelling against the party must have been the last thing on their mind. Then, with Naveen winning a resounding mandate, it was impossible for anyone to stand up to him later.

Mohapatra himself was left with no choice but to throw his weight behind an independent candidate, Trilochan Behera, already in the fray in Patkura.

Behera was a non-serious candidate and would likely have forfeited his deposit had Mohapatra been in the contest. But once Mohapatra backed him, his non-existent campaign gained a new lease of life. Though the rest of Odisha was generally indifferent to the dirty trick that had been played on Mohapatra, residents of Patkura were less forgiving. They lined the streets for miles together as Mohapatra campaigned on behalf of Behera.

Sabyasachi lost and Behera won the election from Patkura. But Mohapatra’s joy was short- lived. He had hoped the independent, indebted to him for his victory, would voluntarily vacate the seat, allowing him to contest the by-election and regain what he felt was his rightful place in the assembly. But that was not to be, with Naveen outmanoeuvring him once more.

Firmly ensconced in the chief minister’s chair, Naveen won over the independent. For the rest of the assembly’s term, the independent legislator enjoyed the good life, with the state administration bending over backwards to keep him happy, and Mohapatra never got a chance to contest a by-election from Patkura.

Four years later, Odisha went in for early assembly elections, a year ahead of schedule, and the independent MLA went into oblivion. But by then he had served his purpose and Mohapatra had been banished into political wilderness. Mohapatra contested from Patkura, but sympathy for him had long dried up. The state administration had worked hard to cultivate the constituency and this time Sabyasachi won.

Excerpted with permission from Naveen Patnaik, Ruben Banerjee, Juggernaut.