Balasore: Sitting with her mother-in-law in her thatched house at Baundiha, a small village some 48 km from Balasore, Anamika Patra, 38, rattles off a list of problems that the villagers here face. Primary among them is the acute shortage of clean water.
She blames her MP, the Biju Janata Dal’s (BJD’s) R.K. Jena, for not doing enough to improve basic infrastructure in the village. But despite this, Patra insists she wants to see only Nabeen babu (the BJD chief and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik) as the chief minister again.
“He is a simple person; does not have any greed,” Patra says. “He has given poor people like us everything — rice at Re 1 per kilo, a house, free education for our children and pension for the old.
“The Lok Sabha elections are different but tell me after all he has done for us, how can we not vote for Nabeen babu in the state?” Patra asks.
It appears to be a running theme in these elections in Odisha. Despite being in power for 19 years and amid a growing buzz for the BJP on the ground, Patnaik still holds sway in this coastal state, especially in its rural belts where 83 per cent of Odisha’s population lives. Patnaik also has a huge following among the 48.4 per cent women voters in the state.
Political experts say this time around there is a clear distinction that Odias are making between Patnaik, and BJD candidates contesting Lok Sabha and assembly elections. Both elections are being held simultaneously in the state.
“People might not like a particular sitting MP or MLA. But despite that many of them will win, because they will get the vote in the name of Naveen Patnaik. The perception of a clean politician is his biggest strength,” says professor Pritish Acharya, an Odisha-based historian.
The CM is also seen as someone who has been able to run the government professionally and stemmed corruption, in a state which had got used to the Congress misrule in the ’90s, Acharya adds.
Things that make Patnaik tick
Apart from talks of his simplicity, which has now become legendary — of how he has just two sets of clothes and wears slippers most of the times — a common refrain one keeps hearing again and again across towns and villages, from Bhubaneshwar to Mayurbhanj, Balasore to Bhadrak and Kendrapara, is how the chief minister does not have any lobh (greed).
“He does not have lobh because he does not have a family,” says Sheikh Suleman, who runs a variety store at the Baripada market in Mayurbhanj. “Who will he make money for? His needs are limited.”
Political analysts say that it is this carefully-cultivated image of a simple man with bare needs, and who is good at heart, is what has makes Naveen Patnaik tick with Odias.
Professor R.K. Satapathy, who teaches political science at the North-Eastern Hill University in Shillong and who closely observes Odisha politics, says that though in the Lok Sabha elections, anti-incumbency against the BJD and the buzz for BJP might result in the latter increasing its tally from 2014, when it got just one seat, in the assembly elections the BJD will continue to hold the edge though its numbers may reduce.
“Currently, there is no opposition leader in the state who can match Naveen Patnaik’s status,” Sathpathy says. “There is no other alternative to him.”
Also read: Will take time to decide on ‘mahagathbandhan’, Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik says at Delhi rally
Pro-poor schemes have created a loyal vote base
Since 2003, the BJD government has launched close to 60 schemes for the state’s poor.
A majority of the beneficiaries, particularly women, continue to remain Patnaik’s most loyal vote-base. And it is their support that he is counting on as he seeks a fifth term in office.
The schemes, political observers say, have touched every category of the poor — from women to the old and physically challenged, farmers to fishermen, youths to folk artists, infants to students.
“Many of the schemes are run with central government funding,” says Satapathy. “But the poor do not understand the difference. For them, it is the big-hearted Nabeen Babu who is helping them.”
The BJD election manifesto promises to give government work to the tune of Rs 5,000 crore every year to Self-Help Groups run by women under it Mission Shakti programme.
The Patnaik government has also earmarked over Rs 11,000 crore for various welfare schemes for farmers, women and the poor in its 2019-20 budget presented in February. This included the Rs 4,160 crore for farmers under the Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA) scheme, Rs 2,120 crore for the old and disabled under the Madhubabu Pension Yojana and Rs 305 crore for pregnant women under MAMTA scheme.
Stemming negative perception through the media
It’s not that there is no criticism of Patnaik in Odisha, especially in the state’s urban areas.
Talks of how Patnaik has failed to create enough jobs during his tenure and failed to set up new industries in the state are quite common among Odisha’s youth and the middle-class.
Shiba Prasad Mohanty, an advocate at the Bhadrak District Court, says that no new industry has come up in Bhadrak or its adjoining regions.
“There are no jobs. Youngsters are migrating outside Odisha in search of jobs. There is hardly any development here,” he says. “Instead of spending all its money on pro-poor schemes, shouldn’t the government have invested it in setting up industries, creating infrastructure?”
The plethora of doles for the poor has also come under flak for another reason. Locals say this has not only spiked labour costs but has also resulted in growing alcoholism among the poor.
“Because everything they need is covered under one or the other scheme, the poor have money available that they spend on alcohol,” says Mahendra Mohapatra, a hardware shop owner in Puri’s Pipili constituency.
Pinaki Mishra, the BJD MP from Puri who is seeking re-election, refutes the allegations. “Today the Naveen Patnaik model is being replicated in other states as well,” Mishra says. “It’s not only about launching the schemes. Their delivery is extraordinarily successful. There is no leakage. People are happy.”
This narrative hardly gets reflected in the media or elsewhere.
Professor Satapathy says this is because the BJD has successfully managed to control how media projects Patnaik and his government’s policies.
At least six of the media barons in the state are BJD members who run some of the most prominent TV channels and newspapers in the state.
Besides, the CM has also managed to quell all opposition within the BJD.
“First, he threw out senior leaders from the party who he perceived as potential threats. Second, he launched welfare schemes to get the poor on his side. And third, he successfully managed the media to project there is no alternative to Naveen Patnaik,” Satapathy added.
Not knowing Odia has become a strength
Patnaik’s success despite not knowing Odia is part of the state’s folklore. This might have puzzled politicians and astute political observers but it has not been able to dent his image among people who don’t see it as the chief minister’s weakness.
“Because he does not understand the language, he has kept himself away from any kind of hanky panky. Not one corruption charge has been levelled against him till date,” says Debabrata Pradhan, former principal of Pattamundai College, Kendrapara.
Karthik Chandra Dhal, a paan-shop owner in Bishoi, Mayurbhanj, insists that not knowing Odia will never go against Patnaik. “People here connect emotionally with him. And youngsters these days anyway speak English most of the time.”
Also read: Narendra Modi goes easy on Naveen Patnaik, but BJP’s Odisha unit isn’t too upbeat about it
An amazing article, putting forth multidimensional aspects of Odisha politics.
Kudos to the author
But to your disappointment they will get more of Modi for the Lok Sabha.
A good man. PR cannot sustain a leader for twenty years. It is part of the strategic depth of the Indian political system that After Nehru Who has proved to be a completely rhetorical question.
Pinaki Mishra is a BJD MP not BJP MP as reported.
It’s or Its? Not expected from ThePrint
Software glitch. Happens on my iPad all the time, has to be corrected manually.
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