When on April 17, 1997 Odisha stalwart Biju Patnaik passed away, he left a gaping hole in the state’s politics, especially in the Janata Dal party to which he belonged. Fondly referred to as the Sher-e-Utkal ( Lion of Odisha), Patnaik is often remembered as the architect of modern Odisha. A revolutionary leader, a zealous promoter of industry in the state and a fearless politician, his mighty influence spanned across both state and national politics. However, in his death, Patnaik ushered a new phase of Odisha politics, that of stability and incumbency.
In 1997 soon after his father’s demise, Naveen Patnaik entered politics in Odisha and a year later broke away from the Janata party formed the Biju Janata Dal, after his father’s name. Since 2000, the Biju Janata Dal and its supremo, Naveen Patnaik has remained firmly in power in Odisha for 17 straight years, firmly placing Biju Patnaik’s legacy in the official memory of Odisha and the country. In a recent book, “Chasing his Father’s Dreams — Inside story of Odisha’s longest serving chief minister,” Biswajit Mohanty reflected upon the political inexperience of Naveen Patnaik and how he owes his rise up the political ladder to the robust platform made available to him by his father.
Born 1916, Biju Patnaik went on be trained as a pilot and then joined the Royal Indian Air Force when the Second World War began. Loyal to the Allied forces, he fearlessly evacuated British families when Japan advanced. However, Patnaik had a second loyalty, that to the Indian national movement. He had been inspired by Mahatma Gandhi when he was 13 and while part of the Second World War, he distributed leaflets of Gandhi’s Quit India movement among Indian soldiers part of the British army.
While promoting the cause of the nationalist uprising in India, he also played an important role in the independence struggle in Indonesia where the native population was battling the Dutch. Patnaik’s efforts in rescuing prime minister Sutan Sjahrir made him exceptionally popular in Indonesia and earned him the epithet “bhoomi putra” (son of the soil). The first president of Indonesia, Sukarno named his daughter ‘Megawati Sukarnoputri”, meaning cloud Goddess, on the suggestion of Biju Patnaik. She went on to become the president of Indonesia between 2001 and 2004. His brave skills as a pilot was called into action once again in October 1947 when he saved Kashmir from Pakistani raiders.
Post independence Patnaik was elected as part of the Odisha Legislative Assembly and in 1961 he became president of the state Congress. However, he soon had a fall out with Indira Gandhi over her autocratic ways and split away from the party to form the Utkal Congress. In 1974 he joined the movement under Jayaprakash Narayan in Bihar. When Emergency was declared under Indira Gandhi in 1975, Patnaik was one of the first to be arrested. After his release he joined the Janata party and came back to political limelight after the defeat of Congress in the 1989 general elections. In the 1990 Odisha assembly elections the Janata party came out victorious and Patnaik was given the chief ministerial post, which he retained till 1995.
While he gained popularity in national politics as a courageous flyer and a rebellious leader, in Odisha his popularity lay rooted in the ground level, where he aggressively promoted the rise of modern industry. The Paradeep port and the steel plant at Rourkela owed Patnaik their establishment.
He was also a firm believer of renaissance and often invoked the greatness of the Kalinga dynasty, in order to motivate the people of Odisha to dream of a brighter future. “In my dream of the 21st century for the state, I would have young men and women who put the interest of the State before them. They will have pride in themselves, confidence in themselves. They will not be at anybody’s mercy, except their own selves. By their brains, intelligence and capacity, they will recapture the history of Kalinga,” said Patnaik back in 1992. His obsession with Kalinga evident from the number of establishments in Odisha that have been named after the first millennium BC kingdom.
In his aftermath, however, it is Biju himself and not Kalinga whose name is often invoked for claiming a past of glory and pride in the state. The Biju Patnaik International Airport, the Biju Patnaik National Steel Institute (BPNSI) and the Biju Patnaik University of Technology are some of the modern establishments which continue to commemorate the firebrand personality of Patnaik.