‘Congress is gearing up to throw a challenge’
‘Congress is gearing up to throw a challenge’
How do you see Congress’s election prospects in the state?
We are growing and much better organised now. It has always been so. We start getting stronger as elections draw near. The challenge of elections puts us on our mettle. I can say with confidence that our prospects are getting better with each passing day.
Though Congress is technically the main opposition party in the state with 15 MLAs the BJP seems to be behaving more like the chief opponent of chief minister, Naveen Patnaik. The body language of BJP leaders is different now. Your comments?
Their behaviour can be attributed to the fact that they are in power at the Centre. Their money power, too, has grown. That is a big factor influencing their body language. But people should not be misled by this.
Factionalism has been the bane of Congress. How are things now and how do you think will this phenomenon impact the party’s poll prospects in the state?
Ours is a 150-year-old party. Such things happen in a big party. Difference of opinion is bound to emerge in a party that believes in internal democracy. People have the freedom to express their opinion. But factionalism in our party is now very much under control. Things are much better now.
Talking of factionalism, was the party not embarrassed by the resignation of Koraput MLA Krushna Chandra Sagaria from the state assembly recently following his differences with the leadership? He also had issues with some senior Congress leaders of his district.
Yes, his resignation was an embarrassment. I think it was completely unnecessary as things could have been sorted out in a much better manner.
There is a perception that Biju Janata Dal is strong in the state’s coastal belt while BJP has a good base in western Odisha. What about Congress? In which region of the state are you stronger than your rivals?
We are strong all over the state. In the last election, we lost at many places by small margins. Our vote percentage is growing and we are hopeful of doing well this time. Let our critics not forget that we are the oldest party and our organisational base is still very strong. We have a presence right up to the village level.
Like BJP the Congress in Odisha, too, seems to be facing a shortage of credible leaders who the electorate can identify with. But BJD has no such problems. What is your assessment?
No, I don’t think we are facing an identity crisis of that kind. We have senior leaders as well as youth leaders who are respected all over the state. They are our strength and with their support we are hopeful of putting up a good show in the coming elections. Besides everyone must remember than Congress is country’s oldest party. It will never face a crisis of good leaders.
Recently former union minister and senior Congress leader Srikant Jena was removed as the chairperson of party’s election manifesto committee. He was replaced with Ganeswar Behera. There seems to be a growing rift between him and Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik.
There was some misunderstanding but things are being sorted out. AICC has intervened. Hopefully things will be fine. Like I told you in the beginning there is difference of opinion in our party because we listen to each other. But we will also resolve our problems in a democratic manner.
Congress appears to be facing a funds crunch both at the national and the state level. Why?
Corruption was under control when Congress was in power. It was not all pervasive like it has become today. Our people did not make money like the leaders of some other parties. Hence we are facing a funds crunch today.
But even Biju Janata Dal has similar problems. Party president and chief minister Naveen Patnaik has asked all his MPs and MLAs to donate their one month salary to the party coffer.
That is ridiculous. It is nothing more than a stunt. The truth is they have no shortage of money but they are making a show of being poor to impress the voters.
What will be the major issues for the Congress in this election?
We will take up the issue of corruption, the Prime Minister not keeping his election promises, farmers being cheated repeatedly by the government and people suffering because of measures like demonetization and implementation of goods and services tax (GST). We will also expose the shortcomings of central and the state government. There is no dearth of issues this time and both BJP and BJD will have to do a lot of explaining.
Agriculture minister Pradeep Maharathy’s comments on the Pipili gang-rape verdict have triggered a political storm. He sought to make amends by offering an apology but it was not accepted by the opposition parties.
Maharathy should not have made such a statement. It is such a sensitive issue. Such statements are not expected from people holding public offices. It was unfortunate. The criticism that followed was completely justified.
There is always a comparison between coastal Odisha and western Odisha. While the coast is considered to be prosperous and politically more important, the western region is perceived as underdeveloped and poverty-ridden. What is your perception.
I think this perception is wrong and the gap between the two regions is only an artificial gap. Some parties and organisations want this gap to widen because of their vested interests. Like there are people out to encash the poverty of Odisha there are also people who deliberately seek to project western region as a hunger zone. This is in bad taste.
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik recently raised the demand for fiscal autonomy to Odisha echoing his father Biju Patnaik. How justified is this demand?
From his perspective it is a just demand because the Centre has been constantly neglecting Odisha. As the leader of a regional party Naveen Patnaik has every right to raise this demand.
Do you think Odisha is really as backward as it is projected to be?
No I think this projection is wrong. It is more hype. Odisha’s poverty is being politicized and encashed.
The BJP lost the recent assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh mainly because it failed to address the problems of farmers. Is the farmer factor also going to work in Odisha?
Though the problems of farmers figured importantly in these three states there were other issues also at play. The most important issue was anti-incumbency.
Will anti-incumbency also work in Odisha?
It all depends on the opposition. If it succeeds in highlighting government’s failures properly and taking the right issues to the people, then anti-incumbency will become an important factor in the state elections.
There is a perception that Naveen Patnaik has been winning elections by default. Why has the opposition failed in Odisha?
Yes the opposition in Odisha has failed to counter Naveen Patnaik and his party effectively. It has failed to project itself as a viable alternative to him. But things are changing. Congress is gearing up to throw a challenge.
Three things that you like about Naveen Patnaik
He gives due importance to state-related issues and does not respond to unnecessary and unfair criticism. The state under him has seen some positive developments – industry has grown and international sporting events have been organised in the state. This has boosted the image of Odisha at national and international levels. But the bad thing about this government is that most of the ministers are puppets. They have no voice of their own. They cannot take decisions independently.
The BJP is projecting union petroleum and natural gas minister Dharmendra Pradhan as its chief ministerial candidate in the state. What kind of chief minister will he make?
From whatever I have seen he is yet to acquaint himself properly with the problems of the state. This despite the fact that he was also an MLA once. To me he does not appear to be chief minister material as of now. He will have to work harder to establish himself as a leader.
What kind of a Prime Minister will Rahul Gandhi make?
He will make a good Prime Minister. He has vision. He wants a corruption-free India which is very important. Besides he comes from a family whose loyalty to this country cannot be questioned. They have made supreme sacrifices for the country. Rahulji has matured immensely as a leader and his popularity is growing countrywide.