Kishen Pattnayak's death did not make headlines. Only one news channel
ran this story on September 27, the day he died. Barring a couple of Hindi newspapers and the Oriya press, the national press
ignored his passing away. This newspaper carried the news of the death of this “ex-MP” in about 100 words; other
“national” newspapers could spare even lesser space. Clearly, our media that loves to hate politics had no space
for the one politician who did not fit the stereotypes of a politician. Yet this is one politician who needs to be remembered
and what better day than Gandhi Jayanti to look again at the politics of someone like Kishen Pattnayak.
For starters, consider this fact: when he died he left no property. No house, no four-wheeler, no factory, no land, no
plot. Rather unusual for someone who became a Member of Parliament when he was barely 32. He served the Lok Sabha only for
one term and had no independent source of income thereafter. Yet he refused to accept the ex-MP’s pension and perks
before he turned 60. His wife worked as a school teacher and that is how the couple met their expenses. They decided not to
have kids of their own, so that they are not forced into compromises. Recently, his wife built a modest house for them by
saving from her salary and borrowing from her PF, exactly the way any other lower middle class person would have done it.
Try speaking to “Kishenji” about his “sacrifice”, and you discovered another respect in which this
man defied the stereotype of a politician. He was most reluctant, almost shy, to speak about himself. There wasn’t a
trace of anxiety to prove his moral superiority and no desire to attract publicity for his acts of sacrifice. If anything,
there was a matter of fact attitude about these things. He represented the last shadow of the Gandhian nationalist movement
that trained its followers into believing that these were the done things. You needed to have good reasons not to follow this
If all this creates in your mind an image of a simpleton Gandhian whose simplicity prevents him from registering a complex
thought and whose honesty only serves to remind us that honesty is not the only virtue in this world, think again. Kishen
Pattnayak was widely acknowledged as the most original political thinker the socialist movement in India had produced after
Rammanohar Lohia. He edited two magazines: Samayik Varta in Hindi (being published regularly since 1977) and Bikalp
Bichar in Oriya. The first edition of his book, Vikalpheen Nahin hai Duniya, sold out within weeks of its publication.
Virtually all non-party movement groups looked up to Kishen Pattnayak for intellectual guidance.
His thinking never suited the dominant orthodoxies of his time, right or left. His relentless focus on equality and readiness
to take on the holy cows of nationalism troubled every establishment. Yet he was no Marxist and was therefore never acceptable
to the Left establishment. He raised the question of the appropriate model of development, much before sustainability became
the buzzword. He raised uncomfortable questions of caste, much before Mandal had forced the Left to come to terms with this
phenomenon. Of late he had directed all his energy in interrogating another ideological holy cow: globalisation. No wonder
he was not the darling of Delhi’s intellectual circles, not even of its tiny Lohiaite faction that did not take kindly
to his refusal to invoke Lohia every now and then.
Here was clearly the stuff legends are made of. You would think that our media — ever so keen to highlight the misdeeds
of politicians — would showcase this life of honesty, modesty and intellectual courage as a model of integrity in public
life. But you could not be more mistaken than that. Barring a small band of (mostly Hindi) journalists who discovered him
through personal encounters, he simply did not exist for the media. The record of the English media, the so called national
press, was particularly poor in this respect. Their treatment of his death only symbolised how they treated him in his life,
or the way they treat all the Kishen Pattnayaks of this world.
No doubt he was not a model of political success. He spurned more than one offers of decent rehabilitation in the “political
mainstream”. His own efforts to create a viable political alternative to the mainstream were far from successful. A
small band of idealist political workers and movement groups scattered all over the country followed him, but this did not
form a critical mass that could generate a robust alternative that could take on the might of the established political parties.
His last journey in Bhubaneshwar symbolised his political life: a small but emotionally charged crowd joined his funeral procession.
Perhaps the only thing that invited local attention was the presence of many women in this funeral procession. A team of 21
persons, including five women — representing his followers from all over the country — lit the pyre. His wife
gave the mukhagni.
Let us ask ourselves a difficult question: was Kishen Pattnayak not successful in politics, at least partially, because
the media treated him the way it did? What if the media had found a fraction of the space it devotes to the two big parties
and their tamasha for Kishen Pattnayak’s politics as well? What if the media could devote half the space it gives to
the social dos and nakhras of Amar Singhs of the world to the “lifestyle” of hundreds of Kishen Pattnayaks that
live in our country today? What if the media gave Kishen Pattnayak’s speeches as much space as it does to, say, a Praveen
Togadia or Bal Thackeray?
Let us confront a disturbing possibility: could it be that the media and the middle class that drives it did not wish to
know about Kishen Pattnayak? Perhaps because he held a mirror that all of us did not want to look at? Perhaps because his
image spoilt the simple pleasures of politics bashing, our national sport after cricket? Perhaps because he reminded us of
the Kishen Pattnayak within ourselves that we desperately wish to forget?
The writer is a psephologist and political commentator