Updated: April 22, 2015 2:42:50 am
Three-time chief minister of Orissa and senior Congress leader Janaki Ballabh Patnaik, who passed away at the age of 88 in Tirupati on Tuesday morning, was witness to the spectacular rise and fall of his party in his state.
When he became chief minister of Orissa for the first time in June 1980, Indira Gandhi’s Congress (I) had swept to 118 seats in the 147-member state assembly. She sent Patnaik, who was then minister for civil aviation, tourism and labour in the union ministry, to Orissa to head the party and government.
Patnaik continued to be chief minister until 1989, and took the post again between 1995 and 1999. He controlled the Orissa Congress as its president for nearly three decades until he was pulled out by party chief Sonia Gandhi after the disasters in the 2004 assembly (38 seats) and Lok Sabha (2 seats out of 21) polls.
Considered by many as the only undisputed leader the Orissa Congress has had, Patnaik’s political career didn’t, however, take off for nearly three decades after his first brush with politics in 1950, when he became the president of the state unit of the Congress’s youth wing. It is not widely known that during the freedom struggle, Patnaik had once raised the tricolour on the hostel building of Ravenshaw College in Cuttack after pulling down the Union Jack.
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Patnaik, who was known for his erudition and grasp over Oriya and Sanskrit literature, veered towards journalism initially, becoming a sub-editor in The Eastern Times of former chief minister Harekrushna Mahtab. Subsequently, in the 1960s, Patnaik went on to edit Prajatantra, a leading Oriya daily.
Between 1956 and 1960, Patnaik was a member of the Standing Committee of the All-India Newspaper Editors’ Conference and, between 1956 and 1967, of the Sahitya Akademi of Orissa.
Patnaik’s first shot at state-level politics ended in failure in 1967 after he lost as an Independent candidate for the Dharmashala assembly seat in Jajpur district. He realised he needed the backing of a political party to forge ahead. The same year, he joined the Congress, then under Jagjivan Ram.
In 1969, Patnaik made one of the important decisions of his political career when he chose to go with Congress(R) of Indira Gandhi, growing in stature and earning her trust. In 1971, he had his first electoral victory, winning the Cuttack Lok Sabha seat and then becoming deputy minister of defence in Indira’s cabinet. He held the post from 1973 to 1975, and was then minister of state for defence until 1977.
In 1979, he again showed his loyalty to Indira and Sanjay Gandhi by choosing to remain with Congress (I) when the Congress again split. In 1980, he became a union cabinet minister.
Meanwhile, bigger opportunities were opening up. Nandini Satpathy, who was chief minister of Orissa during the Emergency, had become unpopular due to her ineffective control over the administration. As a political vacuum in Orissa loomed, Indira sent Patnaik to the state to take charge in June 1980.
Patnaik’s long stint in power was marked by a series of controversies.
During his first term from 1980 to 1985, he refused to take action against Congressmen allegedly involved in the gangrape and murder of the wife of a newspaper journalist in the coastal Jagatsinghpur district. The opposition accused Patnaik of siding with the rapists. The chief minister took no action until Indira reprimanded him, calling the incident a “ghastly murder”.
Patnaik’s tall claims of ushering industrialisation to the near zero-industry Orissa through slogans like “Thousand Industries in a Thousand Days” turned out to be hot air, as none of the MoUs with industrial houses translated into actual business. Patnaik remained in power until 1989, even though he virtually gave over the reins of the state to confidant Basant Biswal, who too was widely accused of corruption.
In May 1986, Patnaik’s image lay in tatters when The Illustrated Weekly of India published a cover story accusing the chief minister of sexually exploiting those who came to him for jobs. Patnaik sued the Weekly and banned it in Orissa. Though Patnaik won a public apology in 1997 after a protracted court battle, the image stuck.
The next big controversy arrived that same year, when former advocate general Indrajit Ray, who had helped him fight the court battle against the Weekly, was accused of molestation by a housewife named Anjana Mishra. Mishra alleged the AG had molested her in his chamber where she had gone to discuss a case of dowry harassment that she had lodged against her husband. Patnaik took no action until the Orissa High Court ordered a CBI inquiry.
In 1997 again, a Congress politician and former associate of the chief minister, Jaydev Panda, alleged in a sworn affidavit that his wife, Babita, was being sexually exploited by Patnaik. As the outrage peaked, the Pandas disowned the affidavit and described Patnaik as a “father figure”.
In January 1999, Patnaik faced one of the biggest controversies of his career after Anjana Mishra alleged that three men had intercepted the car in which she was travelling and gangraped her at the chief minister’s behest.
After the Graham Staines burning incident that same month, Patnaik was asked to resign as chief minister, but his vice-like grip over the party remained intact.
Sonia Gandhi’s increasing control over the Congress coincided with the political eclipse of Patnaik. After the 2004 elections, he was asked to step down as PCC chief. He, however, remained leader of opposition in the assembly until 2009, when he was sent on forced retirement as Governor of Assam.
Despite the controversies, Patnaik will be remembered for starting Nalco, the biggest public sector aluminium maker in the country. During his tenure, Paradeep Phosphates, Birla Tyres, Nilachal Ispat Nigam Limited, Orissa Sponge Iron Limited and many small and medium sized industrial units in textiles and other sectors set up shop in the state. He also brought IT majors like Infosys and Satyam (now Tech Mahindra) to Bhubaneswar’s Software Technology Park.
In the 80s, Bhubaneswar, was no more than a semi-rural settlement. Under Patnaik, it urbanised and modernised rapidly, through the creation of parks, a stadium, a planetarium, library, film studio, and several educational research institutes.
Patnaik, who was known for his scholarship, wrote a biography of Gautama Buddha and translated the Bhagvad Gita into Oriya. He spent a long time as editor of Paurusha, a monthly magazine published in Oriya.
Patnaik leaves behind his wife, former MP Jayanti Patnaik, son Pruthvi Ballav Patnaik, and two daughters, Sudatta Patnaik and Supriya Patnaik. His son-in-law Soumyaranjan Patnaik is editor of the leading Oriya daily Sambad.
The government announced a state holiday on Tuesday and a seven-day state mourning in Patnaik’s honour. PM Narendra Modi, CM Naveen Patnaik, and Governor S C Jamir were among the senior leaders who expressed their condolences.
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