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|February 7, 1998|
Campaign Trail/Sunil Sethi
Naveen Patnaik proving more than a one-poll wonder
About an hour's drive south of the capital of Orissa, in the temple town of Puri, there is a cremation ground behind the curtain of shops and hotels facing the seafront. It was here on April 16 last year, that hundreds of thousands of people trekked form the far corners of the state to bid Biju Patnaik, the only Oriya leader to dominate national and regional politics for more than half a century, a final farewell.
As the sun dipped into the Bay of Bengal and the deity in the temple of Jagannath put to bed, cries of "Biju Patnaik amar rahe" (Biju Patnaik is immortal) reverberated through the town. Every Indian leader of note was present and so was most of the United Front Cabinet from Delhi. Biju Patnaik was a legend in his lifetime and an anti-Congress force to reckon with in his state.
Last week, Biju's younger son Naveen revisited the funeral site to launch his election campaign in Orissa. In the galaxy of curiosities thrown up by the 1998 election and at a time when the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is resurging in Indian politics, Naveen Patnaik is an intriguing case study. In his lifetime, Biju put politics out of bounds for his kin, and his children including, the well-known writer Gita Mehta, seldom visited Orissa and speak little Oriya.
The unmarried Naveen's friends were the rich and the famous, and his social and intellectual pursuits more jetset cosmopolitan than grassroots provincial. Jackie Onassis commissioned his books at Doubleday in New York and Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall invited him to stay at their chateau in France.
The story goes that within day's of his father's death, the family was presented with a list of Janata Dal candidates for the Aska constituency which Biju Patnaik represented. Naveen reportedly took one look and exclaimed, "My God, they're crooks. They'll destroy everything father achieved. Even I could do better than that." His family and Biju's party took him for his word. Influential friends who had urged him to leave the heat and dust of Indians politics alone were rebuffed. "I've seen rich Indians for too long," he told one. "Let me see if I can do something to the poor of India."
Naveen wards off the charge of dynastic succession which his father strongly opposed by saying, "My father did not groom us for politics. I took the plunge because I wanted to carry on his work in his constituency." Plunging into the fray within weeks of his father's death, he won the Aska seat by a comfortable margin of 70,000 votes.
That was the easy part. Six months later he is back at the hustings, having split the state Janata Dal to create the Biju Janata Dal with the bulk of the party legislators, and forged an electoral alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party to take on the might of Chief Minister J B Patnaik's Congress government. Those who thought the 52-year-old Naveen a one-election wonder are surprised at his determination to gain a stronger foothold in state politics. And opponents who dismissed him as a political lightweight grudgingly concede his acumen in engineering the Janata Dal split.
Naveen Patnaik justifies the party's break-up on the grounds that it was impossible to sustain the co-habitation between the United Front and the Congress in Delhi while being in opposition to the Congress in the state. As for his party's alliance with the BJP, he said the principal aim was to fortify the anti-Congress forces in Orissa. "The Biju Janata Dal has entered into a seat-sharing adjustment with the BJP and we do not necessarily share all the provisions of the BJP agenda. We remain a strongly, secular, regional party."
Political strategy, however, hasn't clouded the primary purpose of why he entered politics in the first place, which was to keep up the development of his father's constituency. One reason why he is certain to win again from Aska is because, unlike most MPs who visit their constituencies only during election time, Naveen has hardly been away.
"Orissa is cursed by the two tragic extremes of drought and famine," he says. Aska's chief blight is scarcity of water. Patnaik has managed to pressurise the water resources ministry in Delhi to allocate funds for high-powered drillers that can bore 2,000 feet into the ground and brought in water conservation experts from Gujarat to conduct village workshops on how to save water.
Union Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Srikant Jena, who remains with the Janata Dal rump and is bitter about the party split, uses a water analogy to describe Patnaik's future. "Naveen is just cashing in on his father's legacy, but wait and see, he'll evaporate after this election," he says drily.
But Jena's criticism doesn't worry Patnaik as much as the perpetuity of J B Patnaik's scandal-riddled Congress government, which at present controls 17 of Orissa's 21 seats in Parliament. If the fledgling party wrests even half a dozen, he would have reclaimed his father's legacy as an Opposition force and a figure to contend with in Orissa.
Curiously, the aphorism of Biju Patnaik that Naveen remembers best concerns the first lesson of politics. "My father used to say that you haven't learnt anything about politics unless you've been out of power for at least 10 years," he said, "That's why I am certain I am here to stay."
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