Sambit Patra (Twitter.com) 
Snapshot
  • The local BJP cadre in Puri believes that everything that can go in the party’s favour in the constituency, is going in its favour. But, will that be enough to ensure a victory for Sambit Patra?

Once upon a time in the 19th century, five men in Odisha took on a task of ushering in cultural revival in their beloved motherland. These five men came to be known as the Panchasakhas or five friends.

The five friends, Utkalamani Gopabandhu Das, Pandit Krupasindhu Mishra, Acharya Harihar Das, Pandit Godabarisha Mishra and Pandit Nilakantha Das set up a school with a difference in the small village of Satyabadi in Puri. This school, a model open school, was one where there were no barriers of caste. Children studied together in the open, with nature.

This school set up on a Gurukul pattern came to be known as ‘Bakul Bana Vidyalaya’ and became a model for how moral and nationalistic education could be imparted to students. Satyabadi and the school, along with the heroic Panchasakhas, have a special place in Odia history as a site of the freedom movement.

Satyabadi was a symbol of change in Odisha. A symbol of the change in status quo, of aspiration and belief. The significance of the churning in Puri seen now may not be the same or even close to that at the time of the Panchasakhas but Satyabadi is again at the centre of it. This time there is a buzz of political change, of the shifting of a power dynamic.

The elections have reached the holy land of Puri and this time there is national attention on it.

Going by just the numbers, Puri has been an impregnable fort for the Biju Janta Dal (BJD). Sitting member of parliament (MP) for the BJD, Pinaki Mishra, won the 2014 election with a 50 percent plus vote share and a margin of more than 2.5 lakh votes.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was a distant third in the constituency.

Pinaki Mishra is a three time MP from the area, once from the Congress and twice from the BJD. Puri has 7 assembly segments and BJP has won only one of them in 2014.

The other critical variable skewing the balance in favour of the BJD time and again are two of the seediest and rowdiest political characters who represent the party. Five-time MLA, Maheshwar Mohanty from Puri and six-time MLA Pradeep Maharathy, from Pipli, are clearly the poster boys of the goondaism and lawlessness of the BJD in the state. It is an open secret. Everyone knows their credentials, everyone talks about it. Yet, year after year, the two characters keep retaining their seats with a massive margin and getting plum posts in the government. The folk lore surrounding these leaders is almost like a plot of a bad movie. But it plays out in the holiest of lands. The irony cannot be lost on anyone.

The BJD grassroots organisation along with the clout of these two ministers ensures that the margins from Pipli and Puri are always high and that kills any little competition emerging from the other assembly segments.

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But even with the full understanding of everything that is stacked against the BJP in this area, for years there was a buzz that Puri will be the second Lok Sabha constituency that PM Narendra Modi will contest from. The rumour got a life of its own and travelling across Puri, Pipli and Satyabadi, I got a sense that most people were aware of it and were even expecting it.

But that was not to happen. In a development, that many consider a little too late, BJP party spokesperson Sambit Patra was air dropped into Puri to contest the elections. He is not a native of Puri, had no ground level engagement and it seemed like a losing battle.

But, you cannot get a sense of the fight till you are on ground and see the sentiments of the electorate for yourself.

So, I decided to tail Sambit Patra on one of his campaign padayatras and see for myself, how Puri stacks up in the big fight for 2019. The one understanding that emerged was that it is a fight much closer than expected and there was certainly an open acknowledgement of the BJP being in the fray unlike earlier. And there are a multitude of reasons which are working in favour of the party.

The first and the strongest point is the gradual rebuilding and enthusing of the local BJP cadre. This is the most significant difference since 2014 when there was just no local base in any of the assembly segments. This time, strong and loyal cadre of leaders like Late Lalatendu Vidyadhar of the Brahmagiri constituency have moved to the BJP. In Satyabadi, some of the cadre working for the BJP earlier worked for the three-time Congress MLA, Prasad Harichandhan. Pratyusha Rajeshwari Singh, an ex-BJD MP from Kandhamal, is now a member of the BJP. She is a royal known as Rani Maa Nayagarh and is bringing in some of her clout in the Nayagarh segment.

But most importantly, even in the absence of Modi being a candidate from Puri, the mere rumour or idea has been able to enthuse the cadre. The possibility of being the team that helps the PM get elected has made the dormant grass-root workers and supporters of the BJP get up and pick up the cudgels.

The organisational base has been strengthened like never before and the messaging around Modi has picked up steam from at least 2016. That is why unlike 2014, national level messaging is not lost on people. Ujjwala, Ayushman Bharat and even Modi’s foreign trips and its linkage to national security has been taken down to people. The BJP in Puri with the expectation of seeing Modi as a candidate has had a head start and that might be working in its favour.

The second factor is actually a precursor of the above. The elevation of Modi in the lives of the people. In 2014, as the chief minister of Gujarat, Modi was still not as known in all corners of the country as he is now. There is immediate recall of central government schemes and acknowledgment of him being the only PM candidate. A respondent in Chandanpur says:

There has been a lot of change for the BJP. It will be very tight for both parties and I don’t know who will win, but we keep hearing of the BJP more now. For the good of the country, Modi needs to win.

There are two things here. There is the clarity that BJD and Naveen Patnaik have no national ambitions and hence no clash with Modi. Secondly and more importantly, there is a different figure to root for at the central level which was lacking or absent in 2014.

The sentiment change in favour of the BJP began gaining traction in 2018.

In the recent past though, there was another factor that has worked to the BJPs favour and that is the Pulwama attack. In a small peri-urban set up like Satyabadi, people came out in large numbers after the attack to hold candle light vigils, light lamps, and stand in solidarity with the families of the fallen soldiers. The discussion is recent and is fresh in public memory. “If Modi does not take a step against Pakistan, then no one will accept Modi”, this was the dominant discussion in February. Even in the remotest villages, national security discussions took precedence.

What also clicked in favour of Modi and the BJP was the release of Wing Commander Abhinandan from Pakistan in a matter of 24 hours. What the ivory tower intelligentsia counted as the large heartedness of Imran Khan, in the villages of Puri was seen as the strong muscular diplomacy of Modi. There are comparisons of how soldiers during the UPA regime were released from Pakistan. ‘During the Congress rule, only the laash (corpse) of a soldier came back from Pakistan’, said a young guy. I am not sure which incident was referred to, but the comparison has captured some imagination.

Modi was not to contest the election from Puri but as national spokesperson, Sambit Patra says, he is representing his leader. Patra was a late selection for the party but the cadre do not seem to have a problem with it.

Puri is not as remote as certain other districts and the local youth are familiar with social media. That is why quite a few people know of Patra. And the many people who do not know, are seeing a different side of him through his blitzkrieg campaigning across the assembly segments. Added to that is the media focus in both Bhubaneshwar and Delhi around the seat, which is adding to the buzz around him. Recently, Party President Amit Shah conducted a massive rally in Puri which added to the visibility of Patra.

From Gadasahi, Sambit Patra’s campaign rath slowly snakes towards Gadisagoda. That is where Patra is expected to spend the night. He will do a padayatra through the village, probably have some food locally and spend the night in one of the houses of the villagers. His campaign style is unique and can be considered a tad bit dramatic. From his attire, to the overt display of religiosity, to the photo ops with the ‘poor’ households he eats and sleeps with, things could be considered a little extra.

But it is extra for us, the city elite. In the villages that he is visiting, little he does comes across as insincere. “He is a very educated man. He speaks very well”, said a bystander watching him play a bit of cricket. More importantly, this overt show of being rooted puts him directly in contrast with the present MP from the area, Pinaki Mishra.

And this is the third factor which is working for the BJP and particularly for Patra. A predominant sentiment travelling across Satyabadi was the absence of the present MP and legal eagle, Pinaki Mishra from his constituency. “I do not think he has come back to Puri even once after he won. Forget getting into villages”, said a man in Delanga. In Pattanaika another respondent echoes the same sentiment. Pinaki Babu is never around here. Not in the past 5 years., he says.

The image of Mishra is of a power elite who is disconnected from the ground. He represents Puri but does not in any way reflect the lives of its simple people. The distance between Delhi and Puri is palpable.

And that is the gap that Patra has recognised and is trying to fill in. He is doing everything that Pinaki is seen as not doing. He is trying to show his rootedness, his cultural affinity, his approachability through his campaign.

And it seems to be resonating. In 5 years, no MP has entered these remote villages. There is no precedent to the campaign style of Patra in Puri. As political commentator, Kanchan Gupta had remarked on Twitter, this campaign style belonged to leaders like Advani and Vajpayee in their heyday. By going back to the old ways in designing his campaign, Patra has actually brought in something new and unique to the area, which puts him, a political greenhorn, in sharp contrast to the BJD parliamentarian. He does not need to convince everyone on social media of his strategies. The social media mockery or the jokes in Bhubaneshwar and Delhi do not matter in Gadasahi. No one doubts his sincerity or his hard work. The effort is appreciated. Whether that translates into votes or not remains to be seen.

The final factor is cashing in (or relying) on the resentment against BJD goondaism in the area. “Ethara haba Mahiravana Baddha” (This time Mahiravana will be killed), said a BJP party worker. He was referring to Maheshwar Mohanty, the MLA from Puri.

According to grass root workers, there is a strong anger against Maharathi and Mohanty especially after the furore around the Pipli gang rape. Maharathi was accused of sheltering some of the rape accused in this case and openly made controversial comments celebrating the acquittal of the accused. There were massive protests across the state due to which the CM was forced to ask Maharathi to tender his resignation. But, characteristic of the rot setting in the BJD, he was again given a ticket to contest the election.

Speaking against Maharathi in Pipli is not a safe thing to do but BJP workers strongly believe that the resentment is palpable. These two leaders have dented the clean image of the CM in the constituency and the fear gripping people has eased. The anger against these leaders might just lead to a reduction in the margin of their wins which could benefit the BJP in pulling the MP seat through. Pipli and Puri will be the two segments to watch out for. If these two leaders are ousted by the public, it is nothing short of a catharsis.

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As we head towards Patra’s destination for the night, I ask a BJP worker from the area about the challenges that they are facing in the district. It was either the fact that he was sufficiently enthused by the changing dynamic in Puri or maybe it was just pure optimism but there was no clear answer. At a later point, I started discussing with another party worker about the pressure points in the campaign and the worst case scenario. He was absolutely clear in his assertion, “If BJP manages to lose this election in Puri this time, then it is never ever winning after this. Everything is in its favour”.

But, look around closely and there are warning signs all around. As I was on the road, I heard the tragic story of a young BJP worker attacked by alleged BJD goons in the Kanasa area. His friends and co-party workers stood on the road seeking the suggestions of senior party functionaries about the next steps to be taken. There was a small debate about whether the young boy needs to be first rushed to the hospital or to the police station. If he is rushed to the hospital, then the accused might never be caught. If he goes to the police station first, it will be a risk to his health.

Finally, it was decided that he needs to be at the hospital. I will have to check whether the young boy survived. But the fear of political violence in the area surely does.

Along with that there is the fear of clout. Three serving ministers of the BJD are seeking re-election in the assembly segments. Patra on his own merit cannot swing the MP vote even with the help of Modi. Even as yet, the party is going with the ‘Double Engine’ approach i.e. BJP for both the state and the centre. That means there is no certainty of differential voting happening. So, the assembly segments need to flip for the MP candidate to be carried through. With ministerial candidates in the fray, the decision for voters becomes complex.

The educated, erudite, Dharmik Sambit Patra, a doctor”, which people keep reminding me, is seen as a contrast to the goons and the distant elite that Puri is known for.

Patra is putting everything that he can to make up for lost time and to capitalise on the momentum. His sincerity is not suspect. The Congress party has imploded in the constituency and the BJP is the only direct challenger to the ruling party. The fortress has been breached for sure but the extent of damage is still something that cannot be gauged. The BJD organisational base in the district is not to be underestimated and they have the capability to turn around things in a night. This may be the toughest fight that they have seen in a long time

As I talk to the BJP party workers, a middle aged man stood there listening to all the conversation. After the crowds thinned, I asked him his perspective. Political workers are eternal optimists, but is there really any change in Puri as seen by a common man? He replied, “Satyabadi for decades has ushered in change in Odisha. Every big change in the state has emerged from Puri. Of course, there is change. And this time again, it will begin from Satyabadi and Puri’.

This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on issues and constituencies the old media largely refuses to engage. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999. Click here for more details.

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