( On the occasion of the 17th death anniversary of Biju Patnaik)
By Sandeep Sahu*
Seventeen years ago to this day, this writer was in the carcade that had the vehicle carrying the body of Biju Patnaik at the front as it crawled its way through the numerous villages and bazaars on the way from Odisha’s capital city Bhubaneswar to the temple town of Puri.
Thanks to the enterprise of my friends Manoranjan Nayak and Sanjay Das, I was just two vehicles behind the one that was the centre of all attention and thus had a ringside view of the proceedings. The spontaneous feelings that poured out on to the streets as thousands lined up on either side of the road all along the way that April afternoon had to be seen to be believed.
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“Will there ever be another Odia who will get this kind of a farewell?” I remember muttering to myself.
Seventeen years down the line, I cannot think of any living Odia who can aspire to get a quarter of the adulation that Biju Patnaik got – in life as in death. He has been, in my view, the only truly pan-Odisha leader that the state had – as much at home in a dusty village in Sambalpur as in a muddy, flood ravaged road in Kendrapara.
What exactly did Biju do to win such lasting admiration from a grateful people? In a political career spanning over six decades on either side of independence, he was Chief Minister for no more than six and a half years and a Union minister for about two years – hardly a long enough stint that would give him the stature and the standing of a Jyoti Basu.
But then Biju Patnaik’s stature in politics and standing among the people came not from the number of years he spent in power. They were built, brick by brick, by what he did when not in power. It was what he did as the Leader of Opposition with a motley gathering of 17 Janata Dal MLAs between 1985 and 1989, when the Congress had a steamrolling majority of 117 in the Assembly, that really laid the foundation for his spectacular comeback to power in March 1990.
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And what a comeback it was! Having been out of power for close to three decades, Biju stormed into power in a way no other politician who has been in the wilderness for that long has done, winning an unprecedented 123 seats in a House of 147 and reducing the Congress to a mere 10.
Grapevine has that his son is now hell bent on winning 123+ this time to prove that he could go one up on the great man. “Don’t worry about money, just go for 123+. Kaise bhi ho, peetaji ka record is baar todna hai,” the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo has apparently told his party managers.
The key here is the rider “Kaise bhi ho”. Given his undeniable skills of subterfuge, politicking and deal making – not to talk of the cynical use of money, muscle power and the official machinery – it is not such a hopeless target as it appears at first sight. For all you know, he could surprise the naysayers and achieve his target. But it would only be a pyrrhic victory that would never merit a comparison with Biju Patnaik’s stupendous victory in 1990 when he fired the imagination of the people in a way no one else has done either before or since.
Biju Patnaik was everything that his son is not: large hearted, magnanimous and forgiving. Naveen Patnaik is everything that his father was not: petty, scheming and unforgiving.
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What can be more ironical than the fact that Naveen has been conferred by his sycophants with a legacy – the Biju legacy – that he has chiselled away at since the moment he burst onto the political scene in Odisha 17 years ago? One of his first acts was to ally with the BJP, a party that Biju abhorred all his life. Next, he got down to planning the ouster of every single person who was dear to his late father – and hence could prove to be a potential threat to him – from the party, stooping to the lowest of low in the case of Bijay Mohapatra.
BIju Patnaik was the ultimate democrat, giving everybody in the party his say. Naveen Patnaik heads a party where no one else has a say. Biju respected the majesty of the Assembly, making it mandatory for the House to sit for at least 60 days a year. For his son, it is a necessary evil that has to be somehow endured – and prorogued well before the scheduled date when it cannot be endured any more.
Biju Patnaik, even when he was Chief Minister, was the most accessible politician the state has ever seen. Naveen is easily the most inaccessible Chief Minister in the history of the state. Biju loved a good frontal fight. Naveen loves to fight a proxy battle, outsourcing the fighting to his dirty tricks department, something that his father never had.
Biju loved everything about Odisha – the land, the people, the language, the culture. Naveen has nothing but utter disdain for all these attributes of the state.
May be the great man knew the stuff his younger son was made of. May be that was the reason he had taken so much pains to keep him away from Odisha and the politics of the state.
As we observe the seventeenth death anniversary of the Builder of Modern Odisha, one cannot avoid thinking that the great man must be fidgeting in his grave at what his son has made of the state that he loved so much and the political platform that he built so painstakingly.
*Sandeep Sahu is the Executive Editor of Odisha Sun Times