Almost two decades back when he was a little-known figure and was contesting his maiden MLA election, his party’s poll ally and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik saw in him a potential threat. A threat that did come true when Dharmendra Pradhan helped build a groundswell for BJP that broke into Patnaik’s citadel in 2019.
Son of former union minister of state for surface transport, Debendra Pradhan, Dharmendra steered Modi government’s biggest social initiative of providing free cooking gas (LPG) connection to poor women that helped build a base for the party in the rural hinterland.
While he micromanaged implementation of the Pradhan Mantri Ujjawla Yojana to see LPG customer base more than double to 26 crore in just five years, he kept Odisha central to his political priorities and virtually drove many a project in the oil ministry he headed to the state.
A tough taskmaster, Pradhan was picked to head the high-stake Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas when Prime Minister Modi first rode to power in 2014.
He overhauled controversy-riddled oil and gas sector but kept touring his home state virtually every week during the last five years, building a base for the BJP. This paid off when BJP clinched 8 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats in Odisha, up from just one in 2014. BJP also improved its tally in the state assembly to 23 from 10 previously.
Back in 2000, Patnaik’s BJD contested assembly elections in alliance with the BJP. Pradhan won from Pallahara seat, news that Patnaik reportedly greeted with, ‘Oh! I’ve got a problem’.
Pradhan was little known then and was just an activist of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), and a former student union leader of Utkal University. But Patnaik, who some say ‘x-ray’ eyes, saw in him a potential threat who would breach his citadel.
Almost two decades later, the chief minister’s judgement is proving correct as the BJP put up a spirited challenge his uninterrupted reign.
Pradhan became an MP in 2004 after successfully contesting from the Deogarh parliamentary constituency. He, however, lost the 2009 assembly elections but then the hardworking and ambitious Pradhan made enough contacts in the nation’s capital to build a successful political career.
He first became the BJP national secretary and then the general secretary. By 2012, he got elected to Rajya Sabha from Bihar. And when Modi swept to power in 2014 polls, he was made union minister of state for petroleum and natural gas with independent charge.
He again has been made a cabinet minister in Modi 2.0 government.
It was virtually because of Pradhan’s ceaseless efforts that the BJP made deep inroads into the BJD-ruled state, eating into the vote-share of Naveen Patnaik-led BJD.
The saffron party’s vote-share in the state registered a substantial rise from 21.88 per cent in 2014 to 38.4 per cent this time, while that of the BJD dropped to 42.8 per cent from 44.77 per cent.
Pradhan, who did not contest the just-concluded elections, was seen touring every nook and corner of Odisha to bolster the poll prospects of BJP candidates.
He coordinated electioneering in all Lok Sabha and assembly constituencies in the state, trying to keep a tab on the pulse of the voters.
Just after the first phase of the four-phase elections in the state, the 50-year-old Union minister had announced a dal-salt-rice package for the poor.
It was seen as a masterstroke by many, as the promise did not figure in the BJP’s manifesto for the state.
In a cabinet reshuffle in 2017, Modi elevated him to the rank of union minister for the same ministry, with an additional charge of the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship.
The promotion was viewed by many as a reward for his relentless work to implement PMUY.