Op-Ed: The Barren Shelf of Political (Auto)Biographies

As Amazon kicked off its pre-release sales pitch for ‘Naveen Patnaik’, ace journalist Ruben Banerjee’s biography of the Chief Minister of Odisha to be launched on July 31, the spotlight suddenly turned on how little has been written on the enigmatic politician, who has defied stereotypes to script an incredible success story that has few parallels in the annals of modern Indian politics. Come to think of it! it is only the second book that takes a close, hard look at the way the former socialite has built his amazing political career – and finished that of many stalwarts both within his own party and outside – brick by brick, the first being ‘Chasing his Father’s Dreams’ written by activist Biswajit Mohanty and published by Authors Press, New Delhi. Even this one came only in January last year.

It is a bit of a mystery why it took an incredible 20 years after Naveen was thrust into politics by circumstances for the first book to come out on one of the most successful politicians India has seen. It is possible that the lack of access to the reclusive politician has deterred potential biographers and writers from venturing into his domain. At least in this respect, Ruben Banerjee, the Editor of ‘Outlook’ magazine, is luckier than most people because he has had what others lacked – access to Naveen – since the time the latter made his reluctant foray into politics following the death of his illustrious father, Biju Patnaik, on April 17,1997. The fact that Aroon Purie, the owner-editor of India Today, the magazine Banerjee worked for at the time, was a chum of Naveen in his Delhi days (Naveen is believed to have a hand in designing the magazine’s cover page) must have helped. He was one of only two journalists I know who had unhindered access to Naveen Nivas when he became Chief Minister of Odisha in 2000; the other was the Late Chandrabhanu Patnaik, then the Editor of fortnightly Odia magazine ‘Shatabdi.’ He thus had a ringside view of the way Naveen’s politics has evolved over the years. He is also believed to have been briefed extensively by Naveen Patnaik’s trusted bureaucrats during the course of writing this book. Given the fact that he has had greater access to Naveen than most other people, at least during the initial phase of Naveen’s career, one can look forward to some interesting nuggets that reflect the working of this enigmatic politician’s mind. He has promised in a Facebook post that the book is ‘neither a hagiography nor a hit job’. One sincerely hopes the book lives upto that description.

Though replete with plenty of interesting anecdotes sourced from those who have seen Naveen up close, Biswajit Mohanty’s ‘Chasing his father’s dreams’, suffered from one major drawback – lack of direct access to the man about whom the book is – when compared to Banerjee’s book. But together, the two books should partially fill the void created by the absence of authoritative writing on the longest serving Chief Minister of Odisha.

Forget Odisha based authors, it is a surprise how none of the top Delhi based writers and journalists, many of whom have an excellent relationship with the man who tended to shun the local media till recently, never thought it fit to do a book on the flag-bearer of what is known as the ‘Biju legacy’. Naveen, after all, should be a mouth-watering prospect for any writer/journalist. Here is a man, who made a smooth, seamless and effortless transition from his bohemian days in Delhi’s cocktail circuits to a cunning, scheming and all-conquering politician, leaving his opponents dazed!

While the near-total absence of literature on Naveen Patnaik is surprising, even more surprising is the absence of authoritative writing, especially in English, on his illustrious father: Biju Patnaik. The great man’s life and exploits were truly the stuff of legend. And yet, all we have by way of writing on Biju Patnaik are a few hagiographies in Odia, besides writer-journalist Bhaksar Parichha’s book on him published in 1994 and Sundar Ganeshan’s ‘Tall Man’ released amid great fanfare in Bhubaneswar in January this year. The last one is essentially a coffee table book containing plenty of photographs but very little text and can thus hardly be called a ‘biography’.

Known to be a voracious reader, it was a surprise that Biju Patnaik never wrote an autobiography nor hired anyone to write an ‘official’ biography. Even as prolific a writer as JB Patnaik, whose record as the longest serving Chief Minister of Odisha was broken by Naveen, never wrote an autobiography.

And yet it was not always like that. Politicians of the pre-1980s generation did pen their autobiographies for posterity. From Pandit Godarbarish Mishra’s classic ‘Ardha Shatabdira Odisha O Tanhire Mo Sthaan’ (‘Half a century of Odisha and my place in it’) to former Chief Minister Nilamani Routray’s ‘Smruti O’ Anubhuti’, there have been many books authored by politicians which have been an invaluable source of information and insight about the times they lived in for writers, journalists and politicians of the subsequent generations.

Why politicians of the post-1980s generation chose not to write autobiographies – or commissioned someone to write an ‘authorised’ biography – is something for sociologists and politicians to ponder about.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same).