Towering politician

Print edition :

Biju Patnaik in Indonesia. Photo: photographs: byspecial arrangement

Buju Patnaik with K. Kamaraj.

The book portrays the many facets of the Odisha stalwart Biju Patnaik and his contribution to Indian politics.

THE origin of this book has all the ingredients of a thriller. Sundar Ganesan, the author, was scouting for material on the Kamaraj Plan in connection with a research project he was engaged in. After an elaborate search, when he located a copy of the monograph in the Toronto University library, Canada, he found to his surprise that the author of the pamphlet was Biju Patnaik, who was then Orissa (now Odisha) Chief Minister. As per the scheme, which was presented to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1963, senior politicians holding high offices were to resign and pave the way for younger people to run the show and the elders were to work towards strengthening the party. What prompted Biju Patnaik to resign even though he was only in his mid-forties then was a question that arose in Sundar’s mind. More related queries came up and the author’s attention turned towards this leader whose centenary was approaching (in 2016). Sundar pursued his quest with the help of a small team of researchers, and this sparkling new book was born.

The life of Biju Patnaik (1916-1997) is a strand in the modern history of India, and Sundar spins it by focussing attention on his role in the struggle for freedom, in the Second World War, in nation-building post-Independence and in the Congress and his chief ministership in Orissa , all of which form part of the book. Biju Patnaik entered the Orissa Legislative Assembly in 1948, skilled in politics, , and became the president of the Orissa Pradesh Congress. From there to chief ministership was but a small step. Biju Patnaik parted company with the Congress during the Emergency, described as “the darkest period in the history of Indian democracy”. He and other leaders who opposed Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s devices were arrested and imprisoned in Rohtak jail. When the Janata Party came to power in 1977 and brought an end to the Emergency, Biju Patnaik became the Union Minister for Steel in the Morarji Desai Cabinet.

In addition to records available in the archives in India, material relating to Biju Patnaik can be found in archives in Russia, Britain, Indonesia and in several universities in the United States, Singapore, Australia and in the UNESCO. In accessing these sources, Sundar has put to good use his 20-year experience in managing a state-of-the-art archives, the Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai. He has used the latest technology to rummage cyberspace. The manner in which he has handled rare documents is innovative.

For instance, in 1945, T.T. Krishnamachari raised a question in the Legislative Council (the fore-runner of the Indian Parliament) about Biju Patnaik’s incarceration in Lahore jail. This original document, a typed question, has been photographically reproduced and we are able to learn how these questions are framed and archived for Hansard. Similarly, The New York Times’ report on the Emergency, with the title “Political Arrests Continue in India” has been reproduced, complete with a grim portrait of George Fernandes. The use of such latest reprographic techniques make the records hold their authenticity. The quality of these reproductions is so clear and sharp that they can be read without difficulty. Forty-six such documents are featured in the book.

Similarly, the work done with archaic pictures is remarkable. Archival photographs, 122 of them, have been scanned and cleaned before being presented. The photo of Biju Patnaik with the national flag behind him, taken when he was elected as Chief Minister of Orissa, is an example.

In 1979, he played a crucial role in the politics of Tamil Nadu when he nearly pulled off a merger of the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) and the Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (later AIADMK). He came to Chennai, had meetings with the DMK chief M. Karunanidhi and the ADMK leader M.G. Ramachandran separately and worked out a unification prescription. MGR was to continue as Chief Minister and Karunanidhi was to head the unified party; but differences cropped up soon in the DMK ranks and the merger never took place. It is tempting to imagine the trajectory Tamil Nadu politics would have taken had Biju Patnaik’s formula succeeded.

The federal structure of India was a concept that was dear to Biju Patnaik. He believed in the Nehruvian ideals of secularism and the unity of India. He also believed in the identity of each region and in the regions’ freedom to act in their interests. He thought that except defence and currency, the rest of the subjects should be with the State governments. He went to the extent of advocating power to the States to create their own policies on trade and commerce. Although many leaders subscribed to this view, few articulated it as well as Biju Patnaik. He was proud of Orissa’s heritage and often talked about King Karavela and the Kalingan heritage.

Fascination with aviation

One colourful dimension of Biju Patnaik’s life is his fascination with aviation. He once said, “Flying is my first love and though it has dimmed with age, it still remains so.” He got his flying licence, for passenger and goods flights, when he was 21 and secured a position as a pilot in the Indian National Airways. Some of his flying episodes read like stories from the books of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. His wife, Gyan Patnaik, also a flier, accompanied him as co-pilot in some of his daredevil flights. During the Second World War, he saw action in Burma (now Myanmar) in 1942, along with the Royal Air Force, evacuating civilians and military officers. He made several forays amidst heavy bombing and strafing. A few years later, in 1947, he undertook a dangerous mission to Indonesia and back to help the nationalistic struggle in that country. He flew Sutan Sjahrir, who was then Prime Minister of Indonesia, out of the country stealthily, eluding the Dutch air blockade and brought him to India. Recalling this, Nehru wrote in 1947: “I pay a tribute to the very gallant Indian airman who brought Dr Sjahrir to Delhi. He has been known to us for a number of years not only for his great efficiency in flying but also for his adventurous and daring spirit.” Rare photographs of Patnaik’s fascination with aviation feature in the book.

The book has been designed elegantly by Moses Gladson. Every aspect of the work has been closely attended to—the choice of fonts, the display of photographs, documents and quotes and the cover design. This book has been presented in such a manner that the photographs, documents and images themselves tell the story. It is a delight to read this volume.