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How BJD is trying to protect Naveen Patnaik’s turf from BJP in Odisha

With BJP on the scene, staunch loyalists like Nekkanti Bhaskar Rao have become even more indispensable to the BJD.

ET CONTRIBUTORS|
Apr 13, 2019, 11.00 PM IST
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It was Nekkanti Bhaskar Rao, who had turned Koraput, for decades a Congress stronghold, into a happy hunting ground for the BJD in the last decade.
By Chandrahas Choudhury

In the compound of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) office of Rayagada, the largest town of Koraput Lok Sabha constituency in south Odisha, dozens of party workers rose reflexively to attention last week whenever there appeared a stout white-haired figure, dressed so blandly in a faded white safari suit and blue sneakers that in any other gathering he would have been almost anonymous.

Nekkanti Bhaskar Rao, 65, clearly enjoyed the attention, to which he responded in the offhand way of one long used to being in the centre of things in his hometown, part of Odisha’s tribal and mining belt and also home to a substantial number of Telugu speakers, such as Rao himself, because of its proximity to Andhra Pradesh.

With Koraput going to polls for both Parliament and the state assembly on April 11, and with Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik seeking a record fifth consecutive term in office, this was the biggest week of Rao’s political career. Although not standing for election himself — Koraput is one of 47 Lok Sabha seats reserved for candidates from Scheduled Tribes — he was probably as consequential to the election as any candidate.

More than anyone else, it was he who had turned Koraput, for decades a Congress stronghold, into a happy hunting ground for the BJD in the last decade. But this time there was a third player on the scene — and a big one at that. In the five years since 2014, the BJP had made a concerted push in Odisha, where for more than three decades it had been a peripheral presence.

With some of its large haul of Lok Sabha seats in the Hindi heartland expected to fall away in 2019, the BJP was now focused on states like West Bengal and Odisha to compensate.

The BJD’s 20 MPs in the 2014 Lok Sabha were a particularly attractive target. The BJP had sucked away a large number of current or former BJD politicians and cadre in the last few months.

Even its Lok Sabha candidate in Koraput, Jayaram Pangi, was an ex-BJD MP. This had the effect of making staunch loyalists like Rao — veteran organisation men who could link up party, candidates and voters with a judicious deployment of funds, power and workers — even more indispensable to the BJD.

The Patnaik Follower
“I am a blind follower of the Patnaik family... virtually a part of the family,” he said. “First Biju Patnaik, that great man. He handpicked me to work for the Janata Dal in this district when I was in my early twenties. And now, his son. In Biju Patnaik’s time, the party was only able to get to the door of the people. But in the last 20 years, the age of Naveen, we have been able to enter their house.”

“People know better than to vote for such seasonal birds,” he added, of the troupe of BJD renegades and defectors now singing the BJP’s tune.

But he knew as much as anyone else that these cuts and raids on Naveen’s holdings were beginning to change the talk on the ground in a state Naveen had ruled for four terms. A fifth victory would make Naveen the longest-serving chief minister in the history of Indian democracy. But would he able to ride the attack from two national parties and the risk of anti-incumbency sentiment among voters after such a long run in office?

The chief minister’s response to the rising tides of political pressure has been a surprising one. Announcing the party’s candidates for the Lok Sabha elections, he declared that the BJD would be the first party to implement the terms of the Women’s Reservation Bill (which continues to languish in Parliament). One-third of its Lok Sabha candidates would be women.

It is in some ways a shrewd strategy. It gives the party an additional talking point in the campaign, something that its rivals can or will not replicate. And all long-term analysis of Indian democracy points to the rising turnout of female voters (who, in 2019, are projected to equal male turnout for the first time ever) and the growing power of the rural women’s vote as a bloc transcending religious and caste boundaries.

Many of Naveen’s best-known welfare schemes — especially Mission Shakti, a state-wide network of self-help groups — have been aimed at women. “The women of the state are mad after Naveen,” said one analyst in Koraput.

But some of the female candidates he has named have no political experience whatsoever, leaving a shortfall of electoral nous that campaigners like Bhaskar Rao have to make up with their knowledge of how to draw the voter out to the voting machine. That evening I met one such candidate: Kausalya Hikaka, 33, BJD contestant in Koraput and wife of the outgoing Koraput MP Jhina Hikaka. Nervous and quiet, the pallu of her dark pink sari wrapped around her shoulders, she sat deferentially in a chair next to Bhaskar Rao. It was clear who was in charge of the campaign.

“I’m new to all this,” said Kausalya Hikaka. “When I see hundreds of people at a rally, at first I feel scared. Then I remember my responsibility and my voice comes back to me.”

“It all happened so fast, like a miracle,” said Rao. “Two months ago, she was a schoolteacher in a government school in Bhubaneswar. Then Naveen babu called her and asked, Jhiya, tamey chhida haba (Are you willing to stand)? Within two days she had resigned from her job. Today, she is a few steps away from entering Parliament. Naveen babu does not just want the women of our state to benefit from welfare schemes. He wants to empower them by getting them to stand for elections as well.”

Then, with a change of perspective that slightly contradicted what he had just said, he continued, “In any case the people of Odisha are voting not so much for the candidate, but for the party and the leader who has done so much for them.”

“Patience is the first requirement of a person in public life,” he said to me as we drove the next day to a campaign meeting in the market town of Tikiri in his car, a Toyota Fortuner. “You have to listen to everyone who comes to see you. Thankfully, people of this region don’t come with big needs or expectations. They are not like businessmen. They have small demands. If I make a phone call to somebody to sort it out, they are thankful.”

There was some unperceived irony in this remark, for Rao is a businessman himself, a major player in all the networks and economies that make up the matrix to power in this region: land, power generation, mining, transport. His life in politics was surely not independent of these concerns. The affidavit he presented to the Election Commission when chosen by Naveen in 2016 to represent the BJD in the Rajya Sabha — reward for more than 40 years of loyal service to the Patnaik family — valued his assets at more than Rs 35 crore.

At Tikiri, Rao’s well-oiled election machine had put all arrangements in place. At a petrol pump just outside town, he was received by a cavalcade of about a hundred young men on motorbikes wearing BJD caps and scarves, “for such things give energy to a rally”. He himself stepped out of his car and switched to what he called his “mobile stage”.

This was a pickup truck painted in the party colours — he was president of the Rayagada District Truck Owners Association — and fitted out with loudspeakers, a video screen to play catchy campaign songs recorded in Bhubaneswar, even a spotlight for evening events and a CCTV camera. Relative to the poverty and rusticity of this region of tribals, small farmers, petty traders, and daily wagers, it had the effect of a spaceship dropping into the landscape. There was no other campaign vehicle like it in Koraput and Rao was very proud of it. “All this is to attract the public... it is part of the propaganda,” he said. “I am one of the party’s official star campaigners.”

Indeed, a document sent by the BJD to the Election Commission listed Rao as one of its 40 “star campaigners” in the state. And it seemed to me that of his manifold duties, there was nothing he enjoyed so much as being a star campaigner. Looming, often capless, above the gaping crowds in the heat of early summer, his head sometimes grazing the boughs of mango trees on which small unripe fruits dangled like fairy lights, he roamed through the undulating landscape of low mountains — one of the most picturesque in all India — on his mobile stage through villages and towns.

“If you want people to vote for you, you have to show your face in every village,” he said. Given the hot air of election rhetoric from the national parties, and the pointless byte-sized coinages, chest-thumping and innuendo even by people of the stature of the prime minister, I was interested in Rao’s election pitch. It was a moderate, grounded one. He uttered the word “Nabin” (as “Naveen” is pronounced in Odisha) in nearly every sentence.

He repeated the names of the numerous schemes that the chief minister had devised and implemented. At worst, he spoke of sinister plots by the opposition parties which, he alleged, were trying to spread the canard that the BJD election symbol had changed to something other than its usual one, the conch.

Welfare, Odia pride and self-respect, the proud lineage and clean image of the Grand Leader and the party’s focus on women were the main elements of his pitch, while the songs on his video screen — including a rap song, the flavour of the season — made up its notes of shock and awe.

Watching him, I came to understand why the share of national vote won by regional parties keeps increasing in India with each election: from 4 per cent in the early decades of Indian democracy to 34 per cent post-2000. Delhi is still too remote a place for people in many parts of India, and pan-Indian themes like secularism, communalism and nationalism too abstract. A father figure who spoke their own language, had no interest in any other state and therefore treated the state as the nation, and reached out to them through the local bigwig seemed more real and reliable.

Yet there were some sceptics in Rayagada, well-schooled in the deviousness and cynicism, back-room dealing and conspiracies of the Indian political class, who took this feverish activity of what one might call the formal economy of elections with a pinch of salt.

The Sceptic of Rayagada

“The parties might have different promises, but deep down they are all the same,” said a barber to me as he trimmed my beard. “Walk around town on the last night before campaigning ends and you’ll see food, money, alcohol being liberally distributed in the hope of buying votes. But go to them the day after the results with any problem, and they will light a firework beneath your ass.”

As for the BJD’s focus on women candidates, “sir, that’s all a dhuanbana, a smokescreen,” the barber said. “Did you notice the reservation for women is only for the Lok Sabha elections, not for the assembly? The word on the street is that there’s a deal in place. The BJD is willing to concede some MPs to the BJP, as long as they are allowed to keep their hold of the state, which is the main prize for them. In inexperienced candidates like Kausalya Hikaka, they have found some sacrificial geese.”

As for Rao, his election duties had peaked last week, but he wanted me to understand that the slope downhill was a very long one. “After April 11, all the candidates in the first phase can relax and wait for the result,” he told me. “But I will have to pack up my circus and pitch it elsewhere. Such is the life of a star campaigner.”

(The writer is a Delhi-based journalist and novelist)

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this column are that of the writer. The facts and opinions expressed here do not reflect the views of www.economictimes.com.)
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