By Dr.Sasmit Patra
The mere mention of Janaki Ballabh Patnaik or more popularly J.B.Patnaik turns up the noses in distaste, from Congress’ Party High Command to the common Congress worker on the street, including intellectuals and the common man in Odisha. Infamously known for his purported nocturnal habits in the Illustrated Weekly, he is the epitome of a political survivor. Starting his life as a journalist in “Paurusa” an Odia magazine, he was taken into the fold of politics by Harekrushna Mahatab, the legendary leader of Odisha, who was probably only rivaled by Biju Patnaik in terms of state-wide popularity. For J.B. Patnaik, politics came naturally to him. Intelligent, deceptive, sharp and a master strategist he left many stalwarts behind to become the Chief Minister of Odisha and ruled with an iron hand through the eighties. His relationship with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi though at times tumultuous, stood the test of time. A backdoor player, he became the Chief Minister again in 1995 without having contested the assembly elections. He uses couple of guerilla warfare tactics. First is to retreat; live to fight another day. Second is ambushing. Drive your opponents to a point with a temptation and ambush them politically when their greed is most susceptible. Both the strategies have paid rich dividends for Janaki in the past.
Many would question why at all raise the issue of Janaki Babu, a man much reviled, and dusted to the ground with a gubernatorial job in Assam. Considered as a man who supported P.V.Narsimha Rao through the early nineties and worked against the interests of the Gandhi family, Janaki Patnaik has since long lost favour with the party bosses in 24, Akbar Road. To understand Janaki Patnaik’s relevance today, we need to revisit the past of the Odisha unit of the Congress party. During the late nineties, two major power centers emerged in Odisha Congress. One faction was led by J.B.Patnaik and another led by Basant Biswal, the then all-powerful Deputy Chief Minister of Odisha. Congress represented a wholesale market with two major vendors; Janaki Patnaik and Basant Biswal. Starting from the ministers, MPs, MLAs; right down to the Sarpanchs and Panchayat Samiti members, all were bound to choose a faction out of the two for their political survival. The major turnaround came in 1999 when State Congress President Hemananda Biswal succeeded Janaki Patnaik who had to resign in the wake of the Graham Staines killing along with his two sons in Manoharpur, Keonjhar district. This was followed by ill health of Basant Biswal. While the Biswal camp disintegrated after his demise, the Patnaik camp disintegrated with the Biju Janata Dal forming the Government in Odisha in 2000. Thus, now the Odisha Congress from a wholesale market has become a retail market. Instead of two vendors, there are fifteen vendors, each trying to outwit the other in a bid to become the PCC President and thereby raise his stake for the Chief Ministerial position in case by fluke of fate Congress were to come to power in 2014.
It was expected that with the departure of Janaki Patnaik, the Congress would be perceived as a cleaner and organized house, sans factionalism and dissidence. Little did the party bosses in Delhi realize that the state Congress leaders would get drawn into the quicksand by virtue of their own selfish motives! I recently asked a senior Congress leader, “Why did your district do so poorly in the Panchayat elections despite your leadership and resourcefulness.” Pat came the reply, “Do you assume I should bake the cake, ice it and serve it on a platter to Niranjan Patnaik? Don’t you know that if I did not sabotage some seats the credit would have gone to Putul Patnaik for the Panchayat elections’ success and he would have lengthened his stay as PCC President and I would not get within a mile of his chair?” I further delved deeper, curious whether it was a pan-Odisha issue. He volunteered, “No. In some places Naveen did us in, in some places we did Niranjan in.” Considering these pearls of strategy, I winced as a true young Congressman that my party which I cherish for its national values is slowly creeping towards self-destruction while the external façade seems to be holding up till now.”
While I may be vilified for this within my own party, but the bitter medicine that the Odisha Congress needs today is in the form of Janaki Patnaik. Once Janaki is back in the helm of affairs, the factionalism and dissidence is bound to reduce. He has virtually handpicked the present day local leaders of Odisha Congress. The Patnaik family starting from Niranjan, Soumyaranjan and Tara owe their growth to him. Lulu Mohapatra even today considers himself Janaki’s blue-eyed boy, given the misgivings. Jayadev Jena was pitched into electoral politics from Anandapur by Janaki while Sarat Rout, Naba Das, Sarat Patnaik and many others were given their first breaks in politics through Janaki. Chandrasekhar Sahu is dependent on Bikram Panda from Berhampur who belongs to Lulu’s camp. Chiranjib Biswal and Ranjib Biswal, sons of late Basant Biswal are confined to their district now, with no potent power as seen during their father’s time. The Youth Congress would also have to accede to Janaki. It is a known fact that Lulu Mohapatra and Sangram Jena, son of Jayadev Jena are two major forces in Youth Congress today with their respective factions sparring at each other. They may not desist from hitting out at each other but a word from Janaki can definitely settle them. Both of them would not dare draw the wrath of Janaki. NSUI, or better known as Student Congress in headed by Chinmay Sahu who owes allegiance to Lulu Mohapatra, inter-alia coming within the grip of Janaki. The Mahila Congress leaders, many of whom were brought to active politics by Janaki, would never go against him. With the frontal organizations in the kitty, Janaki could then focus on bringing together a strategy which could lead to better discipline and cohesiveness within the team. Janaki was actually the real “Chanakya” of Odisha politics before the title was usurped by Pyari Mohan Mohapatra. Without the Machiavellian Pyari in Naveen’s closet, Janaki could take a shot at power with a more cohesive Congress behind him. It is no secret that even today Janaki has the strongest base among the Congress leadership in Delhi as compared to any other Congress leader. His lacuna is unilateral rejection by both Sonia and Rahul camps, which he is trying to correct though painstakingly.
The Congress will have to take a check and balance. Would it allow Janaki a toehold in Odisha politics and thereby lead to further dishonor on the Congress image or would it allow Janaki the reins and use him to string together a more united, disciplined and cohesive Congress as compared to the rag-tag team that it presently resembles. Watching Naveen Patnaik yesterday coordinate Sangma’s meeting at the BJD party office, he looked like a man in control, who did not bat an eyelid before berating the press photographers crowding before the podium. With or without Pyari, it is surely a fact that Naveen is coming out of his cocoon and attempting to become a butterfly, a la YSR Reddy. As the adage goes; “better late than never”! Would bringing in Janaki bring about a more meaningful and unified Congress or will it lead to the obliteration of the Congress. It’s a million dollar question. But come what may, decisions have to be made by the Congress, better now than never, better late than ever.