For someone who lives his life under studio lights, BJP’s Sambit Patra is quite the mystery man.
Colleagues at Delhi’s Hindu Rao Hospital remember him as a genial, popular medical officer, with a surprising penchant for quoting from the Bhagavad Gita. So, when they watch him now, 20 years later, telling a spokesman from the All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen, “Aye suno Allah ke bhakt ho to baith jao warna kisi masjid ka naam badal kar bhagwan Vishnu ke naam rakh doonga,” they are understandably shocked. Their soft-spoken colleague displays talents they had no clue of – he can break into song in the middle of a debate, address every Muslim speaker as Maulana/ISIS agent/Mr Jinnah, act as a Nehru-Gandhi family pujari and even jump up and offer his cheek to Congress’ Sanjay Nirupam so that he may slap him.
Very little in the life of Dr Patra, MBBS from VSS Medical College and Hospital, Burla, Sambalpur, and Master of Surgery from SCB Medical College, Cuttack, Utkal University, suggested that he would end up becoming the voice of toxic politics, the face of Smug Bharat, and the symbol of everything that is dysfunctional in the BJP-led government. But thanks to an acute paucity of talent, which has seen their finest spokespersons being sent to the government, leaving a huge vacuum for B-listers to fill, the 44-year-old is now at the top of the heap of his party’s defenders.
Much before he burst into our homes with his dramatic pronouncements and preposterous playacting, the BJP’s national spokesperson had used his frequent presence at BJP meetings in the Chandni Chowk and Malkaganj areas to become close enough to Delhi’s BJP leaders, and now Union ministers Vijay Goel and Dr Harsh Vardhan. In 2011, while still living in the doctor’s quarters of Hindu Rao Hospital, he became the spokesman for Delhi BJP. By 2012, he was the BJP’s candidate for the Kashmere Gate ward in the municipal council elections, promising voters he would fix their naali and naadi (drains and pulse rates). In those days, he would adorn himself with a stethoscope and talk only about development. An Indian Express reporter who was trailing him one day quoted him saying: “The ward has three government hospitals, but such is the state of affairs that women are unable to get treatment. I wish to change all this. Development is incomplete if there aren’t better health facilities.”
He lost that election, badly, but by that time he had caught Union minister Arun Jaitley’s eye, who made him national spokesman in 2014. Since then, his rise to fame has been inversely proportionate to the decline in television discourse. When in opposition, and specifically under Nitin Gadkari as party president, the BJP media unit had a clear narrative – bash the government on corruption and bandy about a series of yet-to-be-proven figures picked up from CAG reports. With Narendra Modi as Prime Minister and Amit Shah as party president, the media that is not with them is clearly perceived to be against them. Prodyut Bora who founded the IT cell for BJP in 2007 knew Patra well, but now feels sorry to see his intelligence being misused. “He is now at best a rabble-rouser with a medieval mindset, but what can you say of a party that has Tajinder Singh Bagga as a spokesman,” says Bora referring to the founding member of New Delhi-based Bhagat Singh Kranti Sena, who is better known as BJP’s vitriolic troll-about-town. Bora, who left the BJP in 2015, says Patra has a very bright future in the current dispensation, where shrillness and loyalty to the leader matters above all else. Even if the leader, Amit Shah, doesn’t remember his name – in a recent press conference when the BJP chief referred to Patra as ‘Sandeep Patra’, it set off a series of fresh jokes.
Co-founder of Newslaundry, Abhinandan Sekhri, acknowledges that Patra (whom the website calls ‘National Trollsperson’) provides them with a lot of quick fodder with his outrageous statements, but says he represents the BJP much more accurately than anyone else – in his veneration of illiteracy and lack of respect for any scientific, rational and logical argument. It is something Congress spokesperson Priyanka Chaturvedi has noticed most acutely. “When we began debating in 2013, Sambit used to come prepared with facts and figures. But since the BJP came to power, I have noticed three new trends among their spokespersons – initially, they would primarily extol Prime Minister Modi’s greatness. Then they would launch into offensive attacks on the Congress leadership. And now they are reduced to attacking individual spokespersons – inflicting insults when we raise issues, in a sort of Balaji-isation of TV news.” She points to a recent debate where Patra called her a “society girl” and suggested that it was well known that she was “very, very close” to the party president. It’s an age-old tactic: silencing by women by innuendo and ridicule, added to which is a dangerous new element, the prospect of violence with live debates where audiences are often instigated by the spokespersons.
Sambit Patra may have been compared recently to Doraemon and Mickey Mouse by a TV anchor who was quoting a child, but there is not much that is innocent about him. He routinely insults Muslims, is nasty to women, and occasionally even encourages audiences with “Joote maro Rahul ko”. He also clearly takes fashion tips from the Dear Leader. “Jaisa desh, waisa bhesh,” he is often heard saying, wearing a smart suit for a gathering of young people, a crispdhoti kurta for an event in the east, multi-coloured jackets for TV studios, accessorised with expensive Kashmiri kani shawls for informal gatherings – this being a must-have in the wardrobe of all Jaitley-ites.
The wardrobe has expanded to keep pace with his new-found fame. Not only is he mobbed in public places, but he is also the subject of an extraordinary number of memes. From one that says that he is S. Patra for everyone else and Sparta for Arnab Goswami to another rather mean-minded one that says, “Main aaj bhi Modiji ke pheke hue kapde pehenta hoon”, there is a meme for every moment. ABP News anchor Dibang, who has been a journalist for over 30 years and has seen many spokespersons stumble and fumble, thinks Patra is a star. “It’s his job to speak for his party and he does it with a mixture of theatricality and topicality, which is irresistible. He will be humble one minute and full of fury another minute. He can be acerbic, controversial, and sharp. That he is most hated by the opposition is a measure of his success.”
Sambit Patra is symptomatic of the anti-intellectualism of the BJP in that he doesn’t seem alarmed at the number of times he has been caught falling for fake news (remember the doctored video of Kanhaiya Kumar shouting slogans?) and even faker images (he famously held up a photoshopped picture of US soldiers at Iwo Jima in 2016 to suggest that these were Indian soldiers in Kargil).
Several of his colleagues speak off the record of his ability – which they claim they do not wish to cultivate – of throwing himself out there, and stationing himself in TV studios for hours for debates where the shrillest voice wins. Indeed his dedication to taking the bullet for his bosses knows no bounds – to the extent that he doesn’t mind being accused by the Congress of violating poll guidelines for holding an impromptu press conference or being threatened with a defamation suit by Sandeep Dikshit for suggesting that he was sacked.
For someone who lives his life under studio lights, Sambit Patra is also quite the mystery man. Not much is known about his family except that he goes home occasionally to Sambalpur to visit his parents and that he now lives in North Avenue, that he runs something called the Centre for Holistic Advancement and Upliftment of Poor and Landless, which has five directors including him and was addressed in 2014 by chief guest Jaitley, and that he has a confirmed spot for the next three years as director on the ONGC board.
Those who have known him since his days as an MCD candidate say they will not be surprised if a confirmed spot in the Rajya Sabha is next. You can bet he will have a song, a smart line and a slogan ready for the occasion.
How low can Sambit Patra go?
Check out these five TV moments:
1. “Jahan tak Musalmaano ko target karne ka sawal hai … kabhi Hindu ne Muslamaan kya, kisi ko bhi target nahin kiya. Usi ka nateeja hai ki aap dekhiye Hindustan main humaare Musalmaan bhai acche se phale-phoole hain … aur aaj 20 se 25 pratishit sankhya unki bani hai … 2 pratishit se 25 pratishit pahunche hain Hindustan main … toh kaun target kar raha hai? (Hindus have never targeted Muslims. This is the reason why Muslims have flourished in the country. Their population has increased from 2 to 25 per cent)”
2. “Supreme Court ne kaha hai ki ek gai ka gobar Kohinoor se bhi zyada mehnga hota hai (Supreme Court has said that dung from one cow is more precious than the Kohinoor).”
3. “Hindustani ka khaati hai aur Shabnam Lone Pakistan ka gaati (Shabnam Lone takes money from India and sings a Pakistani tune).”
4. “Modiji desh ke baap hai (Modiji is the father of the nation, in response to Kanhaiya Kumar asking whether Modiji is his chachaji).”
5. “Bas topi lao main namaaz padne jaa raha hoon (Give me a skullcap, I will now have no recourse but to do the namaaz).”
The writer is a senior journalist and was Editor of India Today between 2011 and 2014.
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