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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 9 - 10, February 25 & March 4, 2023

Biju Patnaik’s Birth Anniversary : By Fielding More Women Candidates in Elections and Upholding Inclusive Nationalism Naveen Can Live upto Biju’s legacy | S N Sahu

Saturday 25 February 2023, by S N Sahu


March 5, 2023, is 107th birth anniversary of Biju Patnaik whose legacy constitutes the very foundation of Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party in Odisha. Celebration of Biju’s birth anniversary across the State including the participation of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik in a major programme outside Bhubaneswar signify the party and Government’s mobilisation around Biju legacy which endures and in popular imagination, Bijubabu’s spell persists.

Biju Lives in Popular Imagination

It is not that BIju’s legacy is invoked by BJD keeping in mind the general elections and election to the Odisha State Assembly which are going to be held after fifteen months. It is significant that the BJD is routinely engaged on a sustained basis year after year for reaching out to people by invoking BIju legacy and his vision of modern Odisha. Across the State there are huge statues of Biju Patnaik in important squares and locations. Even in Government schools there are fairly big cut outs of Bijubabu placed in strategic spots. Many flagship programmes of the Government are named after him. For instance, two such programmes such as the Biju Swasthy Yojana Card (BSYC) for people’s access to free health care in Government and several private hospitals across the country and Biju AwasYojana for providing housing facilities to people indicate the extent to which Biju’s memory and legacy is getting perpetuated. It is natural that invocation of Biju’s legacy by BJD has become a defining aspect of the party to mobilise support for it and get people’s mandate.

BJD’s Quest for Women’s Empowerment inspired by Biju’s Legacy

For instance just a few days before the announcement of dates for 2019 general elections in the country Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik made a historic announcement that the BJD would field women candidates in 33 per cent of 21 Lok Sabha seats of the State. It meant that in seven seats BJD’s women candidates would contest. He did so while stating that BJD’s decision was rooted in Bijubau’s pioneering to decision of 1990, as Chief Minister of Odisha, to reserve 33 per cent of seats for women in Panchayat bodies of the State. In fact he was the first leader of our country to have taken that measure. Naveen Patnaik made that momentous announcement in 2019 while addressing a massive women’s rally in Kendrapada from where Biju Patnaik got elected on several occasions.

As seven women were fielded to contest elections in 2019 to contest Lok Sabha seats it drew national attention and later some other political parties like Trinamool Congress also announced to field women candidates in forty per cent of seats in Bengal.

It is instructive that in the context of women’s empowerment BJD is recurrently referring to the pioneering decision of Biju Patnaik for reserving 33 per cent of seats for women in the Panchayats. Getting rooted in that legacy Naveen Patnaik for the first time said in 2021,on the occasion of BJD’s foundation day, that women of Odisha constitute the mainstay of the party. That was indeed a extraordinary statement to concede that the real strength of BJD flows from women of the State. Seventy lakhs of women have been mobilised across the State by Naveen Patnaik regime through seven lakh self help groups(SHGs) with each group consisting of ten women. One of the lades from the SHG movement Pramila Bisoyi is now serving as an MP in Lok Sabha.

SHGs began around 2002 and 2003 in a humble way. These have now emerged as a movement. These women have been given interest free loans to the tune of several hundred of crores and numerous activities of the Government are being undertaken by such them. As a result their relative economic empowerment has set a trend in addressing the challenges they faced in quest of livelihood opportunities.

Such huge support base of 7 million women for BJD is truly formidable and it is expanding and becoming more resilient.

There is now a separate department, Mission Shakti, of the Government of Odisha, and it deals with the SHGs and other issues concerning women of the State. A senior civil servant, Sujata Pandian heads it. With such ground work, spanning over two decades, of involving women in several activities of collective life Naveen Patnaik has emerged an invincible leader in terms of the support he gets from people in election after election. Therefore, one would not be surprised if he announces that BJD would field women candidates in thirty three per cent of seats for the Lok Sabha and State Assembly of the State respectively. That would mean that in seven out of 21 seats for Lok Sabha and 49 out of 147 seats for State Assembly women candidates would be fielded. Such a decision would indeed be historic in every sense of the term. That would be a fitting tribute to Biju Patnaik. One has to wait and see how things would take shape in Odisha politics which is now witnessing uninterrupted rule of Naveen Patnaik for twenty five years and he is expected to win for the sixth term as Chief Minister.

Biju’s Inclusive Nationalism and his Attack on BJP for its Divisiveness

The other aspect of Biju’s legacy is rooted in his robust defence of inclusive nationalism and his stand against BJP’s divisive ideology. For instance almost one and half months before his death on 3rd March 1997 while intervening in the discussion in the Lok Sabha on motion of thanks on President’s Address he countered BJP leader Sundarlal Patwa’s defence that BJP stood for nationalism and asserted that BJP’s nationalism would break India into twenty pieces. In fact that statement of Biju Patnaik make us poignantly realise the manner in which nationalism is conflated with Hindutva by the present day leadership which is controlling State apparatus and fanning majoritarianism described by Ram Guha as “unforgiving and unapologetic”. The divisive dimension of nationalism of BJP flagged by Biju Patnaik in 1997 is now grimly manifested in the statements of Amritpal Singh of Punjab where he is justifying his strident call for revival of Khalistan by citing the recurring call given, of late, by some Hindutva leaders for Hindu Rashtra and genocide of Muslims. Shockingly top BJP leadership is maintaining deafening silence on such issues. Biju Patnaik was prescient enough to see through the game played by BJP in the name of nationalism and the danger it would pose to the unity and integrity of India. On his birth anniversary it is important to recall his legacy and defend the idea of inclusive and plural India sustained, among others, by ideals of gender equality and secularism.

* (Author: S N Sahu served as Offiecr on Special Duty to former President of India K R Narayanan)

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