Elections to the state assembly in Odisha are three years away, but politicians cutting across party lines have already started battling over the legacy of a leader who died almost 20 years ago to boost their electoral prospects.
Biju Patnaik, a former union minister and two-time chief minister, died in 1997.
A colourful and charismatic politician, the leader with a six-feet-two-inches frame was a towering personality. When he died, some five lakh people showed up spontaneously at his funeral.
His exploits – both as a politician and a pilot during his younger days – are part of local folklore. Given the groundswell of goodwill that still exists for him, politicians are eyeing to tap into it.
As always, the first off the block has been his chief minister-son Naveen and his party named after the father, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD).
On March 5, Naveen flagged off the year-long celebrations to mark the elder Patnaik’s birth centenary.
Though it was a function organised by the state government wherein the chief minister announced a raft of new social welfare measures, BJD flags fluttered at all corners of the venue.
Formed soon after the patriarch’s death, the BJD and its leaders, including the chief minister, used the occasion to reiterate their resolve to realise the elder Patnaik’s unfulfilled dreams.
Opposition leaders were either not invited or chose to stay away from the official ceremony. But several of them, including senior BJP leader Biswabhusan Harichandan, and Narsingha Mishra, the leader of the opposition in the assembly, attended functions in the coastal town of Paradip to pay their respects to the departed leader.
Dharmendra Pradhan, the union minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, paid rich tributes to Patnaik at a function in the steel-town of Rourkela. Though Pradhan is positioning himself as a possible alternative to Naveen by virtue of being the most recognizable BJP face in the state, it did not prevent him from proudly recounting Patnaik’s achievements.
Virtually unknown in the state till his father’s death, Naveen has been the biggest beneficiary of the Patnaik legacy.
He launched his regional outfit, named it after his father and continues to reap the political dividends.
“Odisha has had many leaders but only one icon — Biju. Most of Biju’s achievements like Paradip port happened when he was a Congress leader. Later, he left Congress and fought against it. As the son of the icon, Naveen has been cashing on his name, but other political parties that have Biju acolytes are too trying to own up the icon,” says political commentator Rabi Das.
Therefore, there appears to be a new clamour to invoke the leader and at the same time criticise the political opponents for sullying his good name.
“Biju is a valuable property of Odisha. But now those who know nothing about his legacy are organising the centenary celebration,” insists Bijoy Mohapatra, once a close aide of the leader and now a bitter critic of Naveen.
Naveen baiters say the BJD is misusing public money on the centenary celebrations to mobilising party workers. Congress’ Mishra, who was Biju’s law minister in the 1990s, says the BJD is exploiting the name of Patnaik for political gains.
“The BJD is not prepared to accept that Biju Patnaik is a national leader and above party lines. It is sad that they are hell-bent on lowering and restricting his towering stature,” adds the leader of the opposition.
The BJD, on its part, denounces its rivals who have been critical of the celebrations. “Biju babu belongs to the whole state. If the opposition leaders are feeling so strongly about the Biju legacy, nobody stops them from celebrating his 100th birth anniversary in their own way,” says Pratap Deb, a ruling party spokesman. Clearly, the Biju Patnaik centenary celebrations will provide enough political fodder till the state polls three years away.