Ground Reports

Resentment Against Pandian, And Underlying Grouse Against ‘Coastal People’, Has Framed The Electoral Battle In Sambalpur — Ground Report

Jaideep Mazumdar

May 21, 2024, 01:16 PM | Updated 01:16 PM IST

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik,V Karthikeyan Pandian and Dharmendra Pradhan.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik,V Karthikeyan Pandian and Dharmendra Pradhan.
  • Resentment towards Pandian and coastal people shapes the electoral battle in Sambalpur.
  • Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan never minces his words. More so when it comes to taking on his arch political rival in the fierce battle for the Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat. 

    A fierce critic of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the latter’s political heir V Karthikeyan Pandian, Pradhan has successfully framed the battle on Odiya ‘asmita’ (pride). 

    Pandian is a Tamil and the absolute power that he wields in the state, and the fact that he is the unofficial political heir to Patnaik, has triggered a powerful undercurrent of resentment against him. 

    The Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate for Sambalpur — the party's general secretary (organisation), Pranab Prakash Das — declared right at the beginning of the campaign that he is a ‘servant’ of Patnaik and Pandian and would dutifully bide their orders.

    Pradhan latched onto this and has been highlighting this servitude of Das to the electorate. 

    “Why elect a person who will be a servant of an outsider, a non-Odiya, when you have the much better choice of electing one of your own who will be a Union minister?” Pradhan has been telling Sambalpur's citizens. 

    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.
    Dharmendra Pradhan during his campaign.

    This has been striking a deep chord among the voters. More so since there is a formidable underlying resentment among the people of this proud seat of culture and learning in western Odisha against ‘coastal Odiyas’.

    The resentment against Pandian runs through the whole of Odisha. The BJP is set to reap electoral dividends from it. But the resentment is deeper in Sambalpur, which is the pride of western Odisha. 

    ‘Neglect’ Of Western Odisha

    The western part of Odisha, feel the people here, has been consistently neglected by Odisha's rulers who have, with one exception, all been from the coastal part of the state. 

    Coastal Odiyas dominate the state’s politics, bureaucracy, economy and other institutions. But it is the revenue from mineral-rich western Odisha that runs the state.

    The grouse among the people of western Odisha is that very little of the revenue that the state earns from the minerals and industries in their part of the state is spent for their development. 

    Western Odisha, people of the region feel, has been deprived of education, healthcare, infrastructure and other facilities. 

    Statehood Demand

    This deep-seated resentment over the perceived deprivation of this region had coalesced into calls for a separate state of ‘Koshal’.

    Sambalpur and most of present-day western Odisha were part of the kingdom of Kosala which derived its name from Kaushalya, mother of Shri Ram.

    Samudragupta Maurya defeated the King of Kosala in the 4th century CE and made it part of his empire. The kingdom of Kosala ended with that. 

    People of western Odisha feel that a separate state will be a rich one that will develop very fast since it won’t have to bear the burden of taking care of the rest of the state. 

    The statehood demand intensified a few years ago, but died down with the Covid-induced pandemic and shutdowns. 

    Also, differences cropped up between the advocates of a separate state over its nomenclature and language: while many wanted Sambalpuri to be the language and the state to be called Koshal, many from the other districts wanted it names Hirakhand and the language to be Hirakhandi, which is slightly different from Sambalpuri. 

    Nonetheless, the demand for a separate state is a latent one and there is strong support for it in the region.

    Though the BJP has not backed this demand, it has not opposed it either.

    Dharmendra Pradhan leaves no stone unturned in criticising his rival (Das), who hails from Jajpur in coastal Odisha, as an 'outsider'. And every time he does so, the criticism silently and covertly  fuels the statehood sentiments. 

    BJD’s Das At A Disadvantage

    These twin factors — that he hails from coastal Odisha and that he has sworn allegiance to a non-Odiya — has put Das at quite a disadvantage in Sambalpur. 

    A cornered Das has been hitting out at Pradhan, primarily over the delay in construction of National Highway 55 from Sambalpur to Cuttack. This highway has been a work in progress for more than 12 years. 

    Das has also been highlighting the achievements of the BJD government, including the ongoing mega makeover of the Samaleshwari Mandir complex. Sambalpur derives its name from Samaleshwari.

    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.
    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.
    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.
    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.
    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.
    Samaleshwari Mandir and its makeover project.

    However, these 'achievements' are scoffed at by many.

    “The BJD government started paying attention to Sambalpur only after the BJP started gaining ground in the region. All the work that you see happening around — construction of roads, flyovers, educational institutions etc — started only in 2014 because the BJD got nervous over the rise of the BJP here. That means the BJD has no love for Sambalpur and have undertaken development works only to counter the BJP's rise here,” Rabi Das, owner of a popular food stall on VSS Marg in Sambalpur, told Swarajya

    Others feel that the development that has taken place has not really improved the plight of the common people of western Odisha. 

    “Many rivers run through western Odisha, but farmers can grow only one crop a year because of lack of irrigation. There are barely any irrigation projects in this region. Nothing has been done by the BJD to help farmers,” Shakti Pradhan, an autorickshaw driver in Sambalpur city, told Swarajya.

    Shakti Pradhan
    Shakti Pradhan

    Shakti was a farmer in his native Baduapali village under Dhama block of Sambalpur district and used to grow paddy on a 3 acre plot of farmland. But he gave up farming three years ago and moved to Sambalpur city. 

    “Agriculture barely yields subsistence income and I have a large family to feed. So I decided to give up farming and move here,” he told Swarajya.

    The BJD government has not even bothered to commission cold storages for paddy and other perishables, including vegetables. This leads to distress sales by, and exploitation by middlemen (mostly BJD supporters and functionaries) of farmers.

    It is apparent that Sambalpur, and the entire western Odisha, suffers from acute neglect. Take healthcare, for instance. 

    The BJD government touts the Veer Surendra Sai Institute Of Medical Sciences & Research (VIMSAR) to counter the charge that it neglects western Odisha. This is the only referral hospital that caters to at least 10 districts of western Odisha, but faces an acute shortage of beds, doctors, machines and other facilities. 

    A senior doctor serving in VIMSAR — he didn’t want to be identified because he feared retribution by a vindictive administration headed by Pandian — told Swarajya that there is a 40 per cent shortage of doctors and the paramedics, and a severe shortage of beds as well. 

    VIMSAR has a little over 850 beds across different specialties, and just 20 beds in the ICU and 15 in ICCU. “We need double the number of beds. Most patients sleep on the floor,” he said. 

    Many of the sophisticated and expensive machines in VIMSAR do not work, and those that do are not put to optimum use. As a result, patients face unnecessary harassment. 

    “The AIIMS in Bhubaneshwar is functioning very well. People from here go to Bhubaneshwar and can see the difference between VIMSAR and AIIMS,” the doctor said. 

    “AIIMS is run by the Union Government. But VIMSAR, a state government-run hospital, is in shambles. This, and the many other examples of neglect of this region, breeds resentment against the BJD government,” Surendra Mishra, a former teacher of sociology at Sambalpur University, told Swarajya

    He also takes the example of Cuttack's SCB Medical College & Hospital that is also run by the state government. “Not only is that institution in a far better shape than VIMSAR, Pandian is saying it will be developed into an ‘AIIMS Plus’ institution, or one that is better than even AIIMS. What wrong have we done that VIMSAR will not be developed, especially since we contribute nearly the total share of the state’s revenue?” wondered Mishra. 

    The demand for an AIIMS in Sambalpur is being aggressively pitted by the BJP. In fact, the BJP’s candidate for the Sambalpur assembly seat, Jaynarayan Mishra, has made this a major campaign plank. 

    Sambalpur has been an education and cultural hub, but the state government has not given serious attention to nurturing this hub. Sambalpur has a large university and a university of technology run by the state government. But these are pictures of neglect. 

    The Indian Institute of Management (IIM), whose campus was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in February this year, stands out in stark contrast to the state government-run institutions. 

    Many cite the Sambalpur Municipal Corporation (SMC) as an example of the ‘step-motherly’ treatment of the BJD government towards this region. 

    Ever since the Borla, Hirakud and Sambalpur civic bodies were amalgamated to form the SMC in 2013, civic polls have not been held. “Without elected representatives, the civic body cannot function effectively. Only bureaucrats handpicked by Pandian cannot run a body that has to be elected,” Kalpana Patel, a social worker, told Swarajya

    The reason behind this, say Sambalpur city’s residents, is the fear in the BJD that the BJP will easily win the civic elections. “The BJD fears that if the BJP gains control of the SMC, it will gain access to a huge lot of funds and will be able to spend them judiciously to gain more popularity,” explained Sanat Das, a close aide to BJP’s three-time MLA Jaynarayan Mishra who is also the Leader of Opposition in the state assembly.

    This ‘throttling of democracy’ has angered many. Arun Kumar Meher is one of them. A trader by profession, he says that even  basic civic services like garbage collection have suffered because elections have not been held to the SMC. 

    Arun Kumar Meher.
    Arun Kumar Meher.

    “The BJD is totally undemocratic and has now been taken over by a person from another state. If he’s not checked now, Pandian will end democracy and crush all opposition in Odisha. We cannot allow that to happen,” said Meher. 

    Disquiet Among Hindus

    Yet another factor here is the disquiet among Hindus over the ban imposed on religious processions by the BJD government after communal disturbances in the city in April last year.

    Hanuman Jayanti processions were attacked by Muslims, who form a very small minority in Sambalpur. That resulted in clashes and the state administration, in a ham-handed manner, imposed a blanket ban on all religious processions. 

    As a result, many Hindu festivals could not be celebrated with the usual pomp over the past 12 months. Many have vowed to defy the ban and take out processions during the ‘Sital Sasti’ festival — the largest in Sambalpur — that celebrates the wedding of Shiva to Devi Parvati. ‘Sital Sasti’ will be celebrated early next month. 

    Hindus are also worried over the unabated influx of Muslims, especially Bangladeshi Muslims from neighbouring Bengal.

    “Most of the construction labourers here are Bangladeshi Muslims. Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar are also settling down here in large numbers and their population is rising alarmingly. The Muslims are getting more aggressive and assertive, and this will have a very adverse impact on the social order,” said Bhim Chandra Bohidar, a religious scholar and priest who also runs a small store at Kunjelpada Road. 

    Bhim Chandra Bohidar.
    Bhim Chandra Bohidar.

    This resentment against the ban on processions and the disquiet over the rapidly rising population of Muslims have led to considerable Hindu consolidation. Hindus have become more assertive, as is evident from the sea of saffron flags in most areas of Sambalpur. 

    Scepticism Over BJD’s Development Push And Promises

    The BJD’s showcase development projects in Sambalpur — beautification of the Mahanadi riverfront and makeover of the Samleshwari Mandir complex — in a bid to counter the feeling of neglect harboured by locals has not really impressed the latter. 

    Mahanadi riverfront development at Sambalpur city.
    Mahanadi riverfront development at Sambalpur city.
    Mahanadi riverfront development at Sambalpur city.
    Mahanadi riverfront development at Sambalpur city.

    “All this started only after 2014 and in response to the many schemes and projects introduced by the Modi government. And all this work is merely cosmetic in nature. The BJD hasn’t addressed the real issues like providing irrigation and other help to farmers, improving healthcare the education facilities in the region, mitigating environment degradation in the mining areas and improving the socio-economic conditions of the tribals,” said Santosh Meher, a teacher of social sciences at a high school in Sambalpur. 

    The BJD, in a desperate last-minute bid to woo voters, has promised free electricity to households. It has also been touting the many welfare schemes it has been running since the last few years, 

    But, as is often said, people are not fools.

    “What is the use of free electricity when we suffer long power cuts nearly every day? In the tribal dominated areas, the quality of power is poor and the supply is erratic with an average of eight to ten hours of power cuts every day. The free electricity promise means nothing,” said Rabi Das, the food stall owner in Sambalpur. 

    Rabi Das.
    Rabi Das.

    Arun Kumar Meher, the trader, says that most of the BJD’s much-touted welfare schemes are “rebranded" welfare initiatives and interventions by the Modi government.

    “The BJD government tries to pass off PM Awas Yojana as its own, and put Naveen babu’s photo on bags of rice supplied by the Union government. But people are not fools, we understand everything,” said sociologist Surendra Mishra. 

    What tops all the widespread feelings of neglect of this region by its people is the widespread corruption in the functioning of the BJD government.

    “There is corruption everywhere, from recruitments for government jobs to awarding contracts, getting pensions, registering one’s property and even obtaining a small loan from state government institutions. Many of the schemes initiated by the state government, like the empowerment of women under ‘Mission Shakti’, are useless. Under ‘Mission Shakti’, for example, women were taken on meaningless trips to Dubai etc. These are just cheap gimmicks to buy votes,” said Kalpana Patel. 

    Dharmendra Pradhan’s Campaign

    Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan’s aggressive campaign highlighting all these issues and promising to redress them has had a good impact on voters of Sambalpur. 

    Pradhan has promised to set up an AIIMS in Sambalpur, launch investigation into widespread corruption under Pandian, fill up all vacant government posts within a year, and has been highlighting the BJP’s main campaign promises: fixing Rs 3,100 per quintal as the minimum support price for paddy and Rs 50,000 to all women (Subhadra scheme). 

    But his twin targets are Pandian and Pandian’s (self-proclaimed) ‘kritadas’ or servant. Pandian’s Tamil identity is a big issue in Odisha and despite his frequent invocation of Naveen Patnaik’s name, Odiyas harbour a lot of resentment towards him. 

    BJD’s Sambalpur candidate Pranab Prakash Das’ roots in coastal Odisha (Ganjam) and his proclamation of undying loyalty to Pandian is also being highlighted by the BJP. 

    But the BJP is beset by serious dissensions in some places and that will cost the saffron party a considerable number of votes. Also, the BJP lacks organisational muscle to counter the BJD’s goons, and misuse of the official machinery, in many areas. 

    These factors, admit BJP functionaries, pose the risk of reducing Dharmendra Pradhan’s victory margin. Pradhan is poised to win Sambalpur, but his victory may not be as sweet as he expects it to be.

    This report is part of Swarajya's 50 Ground Stories Project - an attempt to throw light on themes and topics that are often overlooked or looked down. You can support this initiative by sponsoring as little as Rs 2,999/-. Click here for more details. 

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