News Find/Feedback/Site Index
February 18, 2000


Search Rediff

The Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

E-Mail this report to a friend

Chindu Sreedharan catches up with Biju Janata Dal leader Naveen Patnaik on the campaign trail.

Thrice the chopper with the blinking red light on its tail circled the meeting venue. Then unhurriedly, watched by "at least 5,000" pairs of curious eyes, it settled down on the make-shift helipad.

The Son of Biju Patnaik had come down to earth again. At little Brahmagiri, 23 km from the temple town of Puri in Orissa.

As the Son stepped out, there were no audible gasps of pleasure from the onlookers. As the Son waved his arms, there was no thunder of claps. As the Son walked through, there was no sign of delight on the faces near him.

"It's only the Son," you could almost hear them breathe, "not the Father."

A few Biju Janata Dal workers rushed to welcome him. Reinforced by what you can assume as cheap country liquor and a drum which they used to irritating effect, they tried to make up for the lack of enthusiasm the onlookers had demonstrated.

The Son walked on thoughtfully. From afar, with his black-specked grey head, clean-shaven face and white kurta-pyjamas, he ran a moderate risk of being taken for Bihari babu Laloo Prasad Yadav.

His carriage and physique were a sharp contrast to his legendary father. Where Biju Patnaik was an imposing figure, bespectacled and well over six feet, his flesh and blood is, well, not short. Where the father carried himself like an army general, his flesh and blood walks like you or me. Where the father was a born politician, his flesh and blood, at 53 and four months, is still learning the political ropes.

After ducking into a few dirty-looking plastic garlands, the Son climbed on to the bright little podium. From behind the wooden barricades that are typical of any major political meeting anywhere in India, a mass of rustic faces looked up at him curiously.

The Son moved forward, struggled with a half-smile, and waved both hands a trifle shyly at the crowd (curious, there were very few women among them). The response he received wasn't very heart-warming.

But then, the Son hasn't been around long enough to command applause with muscle behind it. Come to think of it, despite winning three elections, despite being the Union minister for mines, despite engineering a split in the Janata Dal, and despite founding a party of his own, this is the first election to the assembly he is facing.

For that matter, this is the first assembly poll without the overwhelming presence of the Father. The Son, you must remember, entered the sweaty, dirty world of politics only after his father passed away.

"Till then the crowd he moved around with was different," people who know of him will tell you. "Jackie Onassis edited his books. Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall invited him to stay at their chateau in France..."

The youngest of Biju Patnaik's three children (for the uninitiated, the Son is writer Gita Mehta's brother), the Doon school-educated author of three books (A Second Paradise: Indian country life, A desert kingdom: the people of Bikaner and the garden of life and An introduction to the healing plants of India) would have gone on living happily ever after among the social bees.

But then he saw the list of people the Janata Dal had shortlisted for contesting from Aska, his father's Lok Sabha constituency.

"My God!" he is said to have exclaimed. "They are all crooks! They'll destroy everything that father built! Even I can do better."

And he came into politics. Expectedly, he made it to the Lok Sabha comfortably. But soon, after splitting the JD to form the BJD in December 1997 with 23 MLAs, he was back in the fray, this time in the BJP's company.

He won the 1998 general election, went to Delhi, managed a Cabinet berth. Ditto in October 1999. Now he was back wooing the voters, on his way to chief ministership.

"Namaskar maro bhaieo bahuniyo," the Son was saying into the microphone, "O maro gramvasi. Ku moro namaskar. (My regards to you brothers and sisters, etc)"

Here, the Son's stock of readymade Oriya ran dry. He switched to Hindi.

"I want to talk to you for long," he said, speaking slowly, very slowly, so that the people could follow. "But I am running late and need to go quickly."

True, the Son was running half-an-hour late. The next meeting was in Khurda, his 11th today. Here it must be mentioned that the Son has improved tremendously since his first election. He might not have learnt Oriya as he promised the voters earlier ("Khama korantu. Tikke samay lagibo: Pardon me, it will take some more time."), but he can now sustain long hours on the campaign trail. An average day, thus, would have 10-plus meetings.

"The Congress has ruled for five years but they have not done anything for you," the Son was saying. A minuscule pause while he dug into his collection of Oriya phrases and up he came he with one: "Kichi kori nahi: (They haven't done anything)."

The crowd loved that. There was some encouragement. The Son went on.

"BJD ko vote diyanthu. Hame kaun koribu."

More encouragement, but the Son had run dry again. Back he returned to Hindi, to touch upon Congress failings.

Indeed, the anti-incumbency wave that seems to be sweeping Orissa is a factor that the Son can count on solidly. Of course, it is almost a certainty that the Son will win the Hingli assembly seat, from where he is contesting, hands down. His opponent, Udaynath Nayak, though the sitting MLA, will not be able to withstand the combined weight of the anti-Congress wave and Biju Patnaik's legacy.

Even in other areas, the Son's party is touted to win. "The BJD-BJP combine will come to power," seems to be the mostly uncontested impression.

That's not to say that the Son has everything going for him. The expulsion of senior leader Bijoy Mohapatra, who has a fairly decent following, will affect the BJD's prospects.

Mohapatra can be trusted to react. Wait and watch what happens, he had told, anyone who harms the party must go.

Also, the Son's seat-sharing agreement with the BJP hasn't gone down well with the rank and file. They would rather the party had gone it alone.

Then again, there was a view that the Son, even if he makes it to the coveted chair, won't be allowed to sit there comfortably for long. "The BJP made him expel Mohapatra. He doesn't have the political wisdom to have planned such a coup," held this camp.

"They know they can control him, a political novice easily, than they can control a seasoned leader like Mohapatra. If the combine wins, they may dismiss him (the Son) soon and have their own person for CM," it added.

The Son, meanwhile, was continuing. "I am a lone man," he told the crowd. "I don't have a wife who would want to see the Rajya Sabha. I don't have a son who would want to see the Lok Sabha. I am with you, for you."

The crowd appreciated, and the Son played his trump card. "I am happy that I am among the people of Brahmagiri. You loved my father. I know it is difficult to love me like you loved him, but please give me also some love."

The Father's name did the trick. There was increased response from the crowd, and the Son broke into broken Oriya.

"Ajaya janak vote diyanthu. Please fulfill Bijubabu's dreams."

Moderate to good response. The Son needed to leave soon. Having let his father's holy spirit loose on the crowd, he hurriedly bid adieu, said his party workers had told him all the troubles in Brahmagiri, that everything would be put right if his candidate wins -- and he was off towards the chopper.

Soon the Son was up in the air. The chopper made a ponderous half circle and moved towards Bhubaneswar. The eyes of the villagers followed it with, frankly, more interest than they showed its occupant.

After all, he is only the son.

Assembly Election 2000

Back to top

Tell us what you think of this report