Biju Patnaik's Warning Against BJP's 'Divisive Nationalism' Is Still Relevant Today

Invoking his legacy is indispensable in our present moment to counter the upsurge of toxic nationalism conflated with Hindutva.

A product of the struggle for independence, Biju Patnaik’s legacy is richly imbued with ideas of constructive nationalism. Invoking this legacy is indispensable in our present moment to counter the upsurge of toxic nationalism conflated with Hindutva, which has negated the idea of India and all that was associated with the freedom struggle. Revisiting Biju Patnaik’s legacy, therefore, assumes critical significance in the context of his 105th birth anniversary on March 5, 2021.

Biju Patnaik’s influence extends beyond India. He is remembered in Indonesia for his heroic rescue of its top leadership in 1947 from Dutch colonialists, landing them safely in India. His stellar role in flying his plane to the erstwhile Soviet Union during the second world war to help the war efforts against Hitler commanded respect in the international arena. That was why when he breathed his last, his coffin was wrapped in three flags – Indian, Indonesian and Russian.

The birthday of this global figure is celebrated by the Odisha government as ‘Panchayati Raj Divas’ for his pioneering role in reserving 33% of seats for women in those grassroots representative bodies. His policy has been taken forward by Naveen Patnaik, who described the women of Odisha as the core strength of Biju Janata Dal. This shows that right from the dusty terrain of Odisha’s village panchayats to the larger global arena, Biju contributions can be seen at the regional, national and international levels.

He was one of those rare public figures of Nehruvian India whose wealth and property diminished despite active engagement in politics and public life. He never profited from it in terms of material possessions.

A 1977 picture of Biju Patnaik with Morarji Desai (centre) and George Fernandes (extreme left) in New Delhi. Credit: Facebook/George Fernandes

Biju is hailed as the architect of modern Odisha for his role in setting up some leading enterprises, educational institutions and infrastructue projects. He played an important role in taking forward the cause of the Vizag steel plant, the first shore-based one in India, as Union steel minister in the Moraraji Desai cabinet.

Secularism and nationalism

More than anything else, it is the ideas of secularism and nationalism that Biju Patnaik expounded in Lok Sabha proceedings that deserve recalling to address the assault on the constitutional vision of India. Biju, while participating in the discussion on the motion of confidence moved by Atal Bihari Vajpayee in the Lok Sabha on May 27, 1996, told the then prime minister that when he talked about secularism and pseudo-secularism, he got inclined more towards pseudo-secularism than secularism. Then he urged him to get rooted in secularism and shun pseudo-secularism. His words assume currency and significance for 21st century India, marked by peoples’ struggles to defend the constitution and secularism from the onslaught of Hindutva forces.

Biju Patnaik’s interventions while participating in the discussion on the motion of thanks to the president’s address in the Lok Sabha on March 3, 1997 also need to be recalled with added intensity to appreciate his understanding of constructive nationalism. He did so to counter the BJP’s divisive ideology and nationalism and it is important to underline the deeper relevance of his articulations for defeating majoritarianism and polarisation, taken forward in a calculated and aggressive manner by the current leadership in India.

This intervention came 47 days before his demise. In the Lok Sabha, he patiently heard Madhya Pradesh BJP leader Sunderlal Patwa, who asserted  that the mandate for forming the government was not in favour of Prime Minister Deve Gowda but in favour of nationalism represented by the BJP, which emerged as the single largest party “after travelling a long journey since the time of Jan Sangh in 1951.”

Biju Patnaik responded sharply by stating, “You people talk of nationalism. Do you know what is nationalism? You cannot know it. His rashtrawad is breaking-up the nation into 20 pieces.”

Biju Patnaik’s response in 1997 carries relevance in contemporary India, when the so-called nationalism aggressively advocated by the BJP is in fact causing multiple faultlines and promoting irreversible trends of discord and disunity across the country. Biju Patnaik was so prescient in saying that the rashtrawad advocated by the founding leaders of the BJP would “break up the nation” into 20 pieces.

When several BJP members repeatedly stated that in the president’s address, there was no reference to the Kashmir situation and some of them accused the government of parting with Pakistan Occupied Kashmir to settle the issue, Biju Patnaik firmly took a position by saying, “You do not know anything about it. In 1947, I flew down in a plane. None of you came. I contained the Pakistan Army there”.

Then he escalated his attack by saying, “You are continuously discussing the Kashmir issue. You are trying to make it an issue of Hinduism. Please talk about the country and not Hinduism.”

Such observations not to conflate the Kashmir issue with Hinduism assumes significance in the context of the treatment meted out to and Kashmir by invoking the insights of Hindutva ideologue Shyma Prasad Mukherjee and robbing its people of their exclusive rights to land.

Patnaik also sharply observed by saying that in 1984, only two members of BJP were elected and gradually, their number increased to 86 and after the demolition of the Babri Masjid, their number increased to 163. “This is the history of this party,” he said.

He also indicted that party by saying, “You call yourself nationalists but this nation has already been divided into three parts [referring to the Partition]. Do not try to further divide it into ten parts. I cannot bear that.”

On the occasion of his 105th anniversary, Biju Patnaik’s articulations in the Lok Sabha in 1997 regarding the BJP’s divisive ideology and nationalism make us realise the situation prevailing in the country. Biju Patnaik’s vision needs to be invoked to defeat forces threatening the unity and integrity of our country.

S.N. Sahu served as OSD and press secretary to former President of India, K.R. Narayanan.