PM’s Odisha Speech Lacked Grace and Grey Matter on Basic Issues
April 26, 2019
The quest for winning the Kendrapara parliamentary seat involving a contest between the Biju Janata Dal, the BJP and the Congress has assumed national significance.
Kendrapara on the Odisha coast has historically been significant in terms of choosing stalwarts and leading figures in public life. Its people elected the late Biju Patnaik to the Assembly in the early 1970s after he was defeated in five constituencies across Odisha. Later in 1984 he was the only opposition leader from Odisha elected to Parliament from Kendrapara while the Congress swept the rest.
The constituency also elected the late Rabi Ray to the ninth Lok Sabha and he was unanimously chosen as Speaker of the House of the People and took several historic measures as its presiding officer.
After the formation of the BJD Kendrapara became a formidable fort for the party and Baijayant Panda was elected to the Lok Sabha from here on several occasions. The constituency has drawn national attention now because Panda, who recently joined the BJP and was appointed as its national vice-president is pitted against the BJD’s Anubhav Mahanty, who is a Rajya Sabha MP. The BJP and BJD contest to wrest the Kendrapara seat has become crucial for both parties, and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and Prime Minister Narendra Modi have both visited the constituency to campaign.
A Poorly Attended Performance
Huge preparations were made for the PM’s high profile visit here on April 23, suggesting that he would address a massive rally at the same venue where just a month ago CM Patnaik addressed two lakh women and announced that 33 percent of his party’s Lok Sabha candidates from Odisha would be women. However, the PM’s high profile visit turned out to be a flop show. Instead of lakhs of people only twenty to thirty thousand attended. Many residents of Kendrapara said that such low attendance was an indication of the state of affairs for BJP candidates in the state.
PM Modi had a changed tone and tenor at the Kendrapara rally. Referring to reported violence against BJP workers and leaders he accused CM Patnaik of allowing “Bengal type violence” during the polls, and said with avoidable anger and dismay that the people would throw him out and send him off with humiliation and his chosen officers would not be able to save him. Such an angry outburst is unbecoming of a prime minister. PM Modi used words and idioms against CM Patnaik marked by coarseness and abhorrence, diminishing the dignity associated with the office of prime minister.
PM Modi claimed the state government did not provide a list of farmers to be included as beneficiaries of the centre’s Kisan Samman Yojana, depriving Odisha farmers of benefits. The accusation sounded hollow given how the Election Commission blocked the state government’s KALIA (Krishak Assistance, Livelihood and Income Augmentation) programme by invoking the Model Code of Conduct, while allowing the Kisan Samman programme of the union government.
Previously, Modi in his few visits to Odisha for campaigning hardly ever invoked “Pakistan”. But in Kendrapara he asked the crowd if the air strike on Pakistan was proper or not. The crowd cheered him. He also for the first time talked about his role as chowkidar (guard, watchman) and asked the crowd to play the role of chowkidar in their villages, homes and state.
PM Modi failed to realise that for the people of Odisha and Kendrapara his chowkidar narrative has no traction at all. Its imposition is inconsistent with the basic issues of the people of the state. The attendance at his rally must worry the top BJP leadership in Delhi and the state. In fact, people in the markets of Kendrapara were constrasting it with the massive rally organised by CM Patnaik in March.
Not Everyone’s a Nationalist
As I visited the rural areas of Kendrapara and some other pockets I found people talking not at all about “nationalism”, national security, Balakot and other such narratives based on jingoism and muscular Hindutva. Even the PM’s chowkidar narrative had no impact.
CM Patnaik in his speeches is primarily talking about people’s basic issues and government programmes. Besides the KALIA programme blocked by the EC, he is also reminding people that no central leader visited Odisha when it confronted cyclones and other natural disasters. This is being accepted by people because they saw the effective governance of the BJD government in meeting such disasters. In fact United Nations representatives said Odisha had become a role model in disaster management.
It is interesting that elections in Odisha both for Assembly and Parliament are fought predominately on livelihood and basic issues, and not on jingoism, national security and communal polarisation.
Baijayant Panda’s opponent is the BJD’s Anubhav Mahanty, a popular Odia film star who is talking about unemployment issues to which he said the central government headed by PM Modi paid hardly any attention. Mahanty’s Rajya Sabha speeches on unemployment and the BJP’s “betrayal” in not giving Odisha special status in spite of their 2014 manifesto categorically promising to do so, are being widely broadcast through campaign vehicles.
Minorities Aren’t a Different Species
There are more than two lakh Muslims in Kendrapara. Traditionally Muslims here have voted for the Congress. On April 22 there was a huge meeting organised by the BJD to appeal to Muslims to vote for its candidates. Ayub Khan who is the BJD MLA from Hindu-dominated Kantabanji in Bolangir is camping in Kendrapara to try and mobilise Muslims.
At that meeting a large number of Hindus were also present. The Muslim leaders who spoke referred to basic livelihood issues and not to Pakistan, terrorism or the lynching of Muslims. Khan said that in the past the Congress in Odisha might have fielded many Muslims as MLAs and made them ministers but the actual substantive work for Muslims was done by Naveen Patnaik. He mentioned a Haj Bhawan and an Urdu university. One leader said that CM Patnaik implemented programmes centered around basic issues, rather than spouting words. People applauded him. It was fascinating to see Hindu married women with vermillion on their forehead sitting side by side by Muslim women.
Everybody in the audience was moved when Sashi Bhusan Behera, a former Rajya Sabha MP and now the state government’s finance minister contesting as an MLA, said that when a child is born, be it from the womb of a Muslim or Hindu woman, both suffer the same pain, and after the birth of the child he or she comes to this earth and becomes a child of the soil. Behera said that irrespective of faith everyone present was from the same soil, even though he hailed from Cuttack.
The BJP in the State
Meanwhile all the BJP’s candidates in Odisha are also talking about the basic issues of people, not about Pakistan or Hindutva. They refer to the necessity of building more schools and hospitals, and better infrastructure. The predominant narrative even in this high profile constituency centres on people’s issues. It is good to see the basis issues defining the scope for contesting elections and seeking mandate of people.
By contrast, Prime Minister Modi’s speech in Kendrapara was devoid of substance and grace. His disparaging remarks against the chief minister and his hollow repetition of a one-size-fits-all Chowkidar-vs-Pakistan narrative the on people of Odisha, testified to his attempts to sideline the actual problems of people. Slowly and gradually PM Modi is losing touch with reality, the scope of which is inevitably determined by the basic issues that people face.
First published in The Citizen.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the writer's own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Indian Writers' Forum.
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