Biju Patnaik: Pilot, Patriot and Politician

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From a daring pilot-patriot to the big daddy of Indian politics, Biju Patnaik (5 March 1916 – 17 April 1997) is remembered by generations of people not only in Odisha but outside as well. He was prominent among the leaders who took part in the independence struggle against British colonialism. His daring exploits as a pilot in the years before and soon after India’s independence in 1947 earned him countless accolades.

From dropping political leaflets to Indian soldiers fighting under British command in Burma to flying clandestine missions that carried Congress Party leaders from hideouts across India,Biju Patnaik did it all with aplomb. Jailed by the British in 1942 and imprisoned until 1946, he earned fame for daredevil flights that carried Indian soldiers to the battle in Kashmir on eve of independence.

The mission to Indonesia in 1948 and rescuing the two key Indonesian independence leaders – Sultan Sjharir and Sukarno – from a remote hideout and flying them to India, outraging the Dutch colonialists earned him the honor ‘Bhoomiputra’ or son of the soil in an alien land.

Biju Patnaik was the first Odia aviator-entrepreneur with the founding of his own carrier, Kalinga Airlines, and becoming its chief pilot. The first decade after independence saw him as a first-rank businessman in Odisha: building an industrial empire that included textile mills, iron ore and manganese mines, a steel mill and factories manufacturing domestic appliances.

In the 1970’s, disillusioned with the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he broke away from the Congress Party. Biju was one among many leaders arrested and imprisoned during India’s internal emergency. He was one of the founders of the Janata Party that came to power after Indira Gandhi was defeated in 1977.With the formation of the first non-Congress government at the centre in 1980, he became the steel,coal and mines minister. Biju Patnaik’s political ideals centered on socialism and federalism. His strong advocacy for equal resources to all Indian states made him a champion of sorts.

Biju Patnaik is commonly credited with developing an industrial base in Odisha during his two stints as Chief Minister. Never short of ideas, he was impatient to get them implemented despite constraints. When the central government expressed its inability to finance the Paradip port project during his first chief ministership, Patnaik went ahead and forced the Centre to endorse it afterward.

Biju Patnaik was leader of the masses and not of any particular class. He rose above pettiness, just as he had a big heart. His followers hail him as the ‘Kalinga Bull’ and the ‘Iron Man ‘of Odisha. Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of the French, was his idol. A colorful personality, he stood out from other politicians for his romantic approach that sometimes turned out to be whimsical. Patnaik remained a man much ahead of his time and age.

Whoever said charismatic leaders don’t need an ideology, he believed in that dictum. ‘Biju Patnaik is a remarkable Indian whose adventures would fill a book’, said Sir Julian Huxley, the First Director General of UNESCO.

The likes of Biju Patnaik aka Bijayanand Patnaik will never be seen again.