The death of veteran Congress leader Janaki Ballabh Patnaik marks the end of an era in Odisha’s politics.
Patnaik, who died at the age of 89 at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh on Tuesday, took complete control of the Congress’ organisation in Odisha and emerged as one of the most powerful regional satraps of the party.
He dominated state politics for more than three decades, drawing accolades for his organisational skills and administration, as well as criticism for alleged corruption and excesses by Congress cadres during his rule.
Patnaik’s role as a politician almost overshadowed his accomplishments as a littérateur, journalist and erudite scholar. He served as chief minister for the longest period of more than 13 years, a record broken recently by Naveen Patnaik.
The former Assam governor had gone to Tirupati from Bhubaneswar on Monday to participate in the convocation of Rashtriya Sanskrit Vidyapeetha. Patnaik was the chancellor of the Sanskrit university.
He complained of chest pain at about 11 pm on Monday and was rushed to a hospital, where he died, his family said.
Patnaik was Odisha’s chief minister three times – first for two consecutive terms during 1980-89 and then from 1995 to 1999. He served as governor of Assam from 2009 to 2014.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik described Patnaik’s death as a huge loss for Odisha.
“He was a great figure in Odisha politics known for his political acumen and administrative abilities and withstood the test of time in politics. He had profound knowledge in a range of subjects in art, culture, tradition and literature. He himself was an erudite scholar as well as an acclaimed journalist,” the chief minister said in his condolence message.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi described Patnaik as a “pillar of Odisha politics” and a popular leader who was always connected with the people’s views and aspirations.
Born on January 3, 1927 in Rameswar village of Khurda district (undivided Puri), Patnaik graduated in Sanskrit from Utkal University in 1947 and did his post-graduation in political science from Banaras Hindu University in 1949. A year later, he became president of the youth wing of the state Congress unit.
He was elected to the Lok Sabha for the first time in 1971. In 1980, when he was the Union minister for civil aviation in the Congress government headed by Indira Gandhi, she chose him to become chief minister of Odisha.
Patnaik then took complete control of the Congress’ organisation in the state. Long after his tenure as chief minister, Patnaik retained a strong grip over the state Congress unit. The party’s top leadership tried hard to bring in other leaders to lead the state unit, which was continuously on the decline since 2000, but was never successful.
He edited the popular daily Prajatantra and founded the literary magazine Paurusha. He translated the Mahabharata, Ramayana and Srimad Bhagbat Gita into Odia and won a Sahitya Akademi award for translating Bankim Chandra’s novels.
Observers say Patnaik, despite all the controversies and allegations, was the best bet Congress had to counter the BJD. Most party workers still think that when the BJD and BJP snapped their ties before the 2009 elections, Patnaik could have made a huge difference and may have even recaptured power for the Congress in the state.
Though this may be debatable, it underlines the importance of Patnaik’s role in the state.