(This article was first published on 5 March 2018 and has been reposted from The Quint’s archives to mark the birth anniversary of Biju Patnaik.)
A two-time chief minister of Odisha and one of the most prominent leaders from the state, Biju Patnaik was known for his unconventional ways to dealing with problems, a rare attribute among the politicians of India. From calling people to “beat the government officers” who don’t listen to their grievances to not “owing an explanation” to an inquiry by the vigilance department over the allegations of party fund misappropriation, Patnaik was uncompromising.
Born in 5 March 1916, let’s revisit the life of Odisha’s most towering leader on his birth anniversary.
Nehru’s Trusted Man
Biju Patnaik became close with Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru when he was imprisoned from 1943-46 for being involved in the freedom movement. He joined the Royal Indian Airforce in 1936 as a pilot, but was secretly helping the Indian freedom movement instead. He dropped leaflets to the Indian soldiers fighting for the British in Burma. During the Quit India movement, Patnaik flew many a Congress leader to secret hideouts for meetings.
In 1947, upon the instructions of Nehru, Patnaik rescued Indonesian Premier Sultan Sjahrir and brought him back to New Delhi, when the Indonesian freedom struggle was at its peak. In October 1947, he dropped a troupe of 17 soldiers of the Sikh Regiment at the Srinagar airport to save Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistani raiders. This was the first Indian troupe to land in Srinagar.
During the 1962 India-China war, Patnaik was appointed as adviser to Prime Minister Nehru. He was the only civilian to be appointed as an advisor to the PM on military affairs, and was instrumental in getting the support of the then president of the US, John F Kennedy, against China.
Early Life and the Biggest Rival
Bijayanand Patnaik – popularly known as Biju Babu among his friends and followers – was born on 5 March 1916 to Lakshminarayan and Ashalata Patnaik. He belonged to an affluent family and later went on to lay the foundation of industrialisation in Odisha.
Known for his passion for sports and adventure as a school student, Patnaik left Ravenshaw College to train as a pilot. In 1936, he joined the Royal Indian Airforce as a pilot. Post independence, he was elected twice to the Odisha Legislative Assembly, in 1952 and 1957.
Patnaik, as the president of the Pradesh Congress Committee, led the Congress to a massive victory in the Assembly elections of 1961. He became the Chief Minister of Odisha for the first time, but resigned following the Kamraj Plan in 1963.
In 1969, Patnaik left the Congress due to differences with the then party chief, Indira Gandhi, over the presidential election. He never mended ways after. He formed the Utkal Congress, a new party, which later merged with the Janta Party.
Patnaik emerged as the biggest rival to the Congress in Odisha, and played an important role in national politics as part of the Janata Party. He also served as the Union minister for steel in the Morarji Desai government.