‘Goodwill Earned by Father Stood Me in Good Stead’

‘Goodwill Earned by Father Stood Me in Good Stead’
01 Jul 2019

Saptagiri Ulaka was the only Congress leader from Odisha who kept the party’s flag flying in the recently held Lok Sabha elections. His victory from Koraput was a big consolation for the party which saw most of its leaders biting the dust not only in the Lok Sabha but also in the assembly elections which were held simultaneously in the state. Ending up with a measly assembly tally of nine seats, seven less than its 2014 performance, Congress lost its main opposition party tag to the BJP. However, Saptagiri ensured that the party had something to cheer about. In a ding-dong battle with Biju Janata Dal’s Kaushalya Hikaka he finally came up trumps though by a narrow margin. Ashutosh Mishra of India First engaged this young software engineer-turned-politician in a freewheeling talk during which he spoke about his campaign experience and his future plans:   

Your feelings on becoming a first time MP and the only one from your party in the state?

I am happy and excited but it would have been better had we put up a better show in the state and at the national level as well. My victory was like scoring a century when your team loses the match. Nonetheless, it is a big opportunity for me to serve the people of Koraput who have reposed their faith in me. I will try my best to live up to their expectations.

You are the lone Congress MP from the state. Does that mean extra responsibility?

Yes, it will mean added responsibility. It will mean that I would need to raise issues not only pertaining to my constituency but also other areas of the state since I will be the sole representative of the party from Odisha in the parliament. It will be my responsibility and endeavour to highlight the real issues.

Why did Congress fare so badly in the elections in the state this time?

There are several reasons. First and foremost, Pradesh Congress Committee president did not get enough time to rebuild the organisation and make it fully ready for the elections.  Secondly, we could not take advantage of the anti-incumbency factor and failed to convert it into votes. Strangely, the state witnessed a four-phase election even though there was no ostensible reason to stretch the elections for such a long time. This suited BJP as Prime Minister Narendra Modi could visit the state for campaigning several times. Yet another factor was that both BJP and BJD were superior to us in terms of resources. We could not match them in this aspect. Consequently, a chunk of our votes  shifted to BJP and BJD. Besides because of ticket distribution issues some of our candidates did not get enough time for campaigning. 

What was the experience of campaigning like. Was it easy or difficult?  

See, I come from a political family. I have seen the campaigns of my father (former minister and MP, Ramachandra Ulaka) and also taken part in them. In my case I started my campaign quite early. The challenge for me was to reach people right up to the grassroots level but I was aware of what people wanted. I also had an idea of what the party manifesto promised even before it was formally announced. People, too, were appreciative of my efforts. They realised that a young engineer had quit his job to serve them.

What factors contributed to your victory?

One important factor was anti-incumbency but this was not so much a reflection on the image of chief minister Naveen Patnaik as on the performance of local MLAs and MPs of the ruling party. We took advantage of that. The fact that we could reach people right up to the grassroots level also helped. Equally important was the goodwill that my father still enjoys in the constituency. Besides, young and neutral voters favoured me. It must have meant 5 to 10 percent additional votes for me.

You come from a political family. Your father was an MP and also a minister in the state. Did you ever think of entering politics or did it happen by chance?

Politics did not happen by chance. I remember when our present party president Rahul Gandhi had visited Niyamgiri and declared that he was a soldier (sipahi) of the tribals, I had a discussion with my father. I really wanted to help people. So I started visiting the constituency and started working with people at the grassroots. In 2014 I had applied for an MLA ticket from the party but failed to get one. This time I got the opportunity.

Koraput is a tribal-dominated constituency. What are the typical problems of the constituency and how do you propose to solve them?

There are multiple problems. Every tribe has its own problems. But some of the major problems are lack of connectivity, absence of a good health care system and lack of awareness about government schemes. Absence of good doctors means that people become prone to superstitions. Tribals being innocent often fall victim to exploitation. Then there are local issues like access to minor forest produce (MFP). But I think one of the biggest issues is lack of employment. This needs immediate attention.

Maoist ultras have been quite active in Koraput. How to tackle this menace?

I think Maoists are active only in certain pockets of Koraput. It is for the government to tackle this problem but I think better connectivity and communication can help in this regard. Development can be a big tool in dealing with this problem. The government must ensure that exploitation of innocent people stops.

Between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi who is a better leader and why?

Rahul Gandhi believes in delivering on his promises. His agenda is inclusive. He is a leader with a vision and he has a strategy for India’s growth and development. All he needs is a chance. On the contrary, Modi has not delivered on his promises. He also lacks out-of-the-box thinking. It is strange that during his campaign he did not talk about demonetization and GST  which  were  two of the most important decisions of his government.  These questions will remain despite the fact that his party has won the elections. On the other hand, Congress has to sit down and analyse what went wrong.     

In your constituency a strange phenomenon was witnessed. While you won the Koraput Lok Sabha seat, Congress lost in six of the seven assembly segments falling under the constituency. How do you explain this?

We won the Lok Sabha seat because we started early. We were on equal terms with the BJD. Besides people resorted to tactical voting and chose the leader who they thought was  most capable of representing them in the parliament. We also got the support of first-time voters and neutral voters. The goodwill earned by my father also stood me in good stead in this contest.

Infighting has been the bane of Congress in Odisha. The party has lost elections in the past because of this. But factionalism continues to plague the party. Do you think it also affected your prospects in Koraput?

To say that we lost the elections because of infighting would be arrogance. The fact is that our organisational structure was weak. We need to do a lot in this regard. Compared to us, the BJP and BJD were much better organised. The campaign vehicles of BJP went around the state. While both BJP and BJD  had good booth management teams, it was a problem for the Congress. Infighting is an issue but there were bigger issues responsible for our debacle.

How do you look at the welfare schemes of Naveen Patnaik government? Are they sincere attempts at poverty alleviation or they are just political stunts, as some critics say?

In most of the cases, only BJD workers have been benefiting from these schemes. Be it KALIA or PEETHA, common people have not gained much from them. The overall impression that one gets is that there is no long-term planning to mitigate poverty and hunger. This seems to be subsistence model of development which does not actually improve the quality of life of people on a long term basis. It does not eliminate poverty. From that point of view they appear to be attempts at garnering votes during elections.   

What was the feeling like when you entered the parliament for the first time as an MP?    

It was a different kind of feeling. I was entering the temple of democracy. What came to my mind were the people of Koraput who had sent me there. I felt that they have thrust a big responsibility on my shoulders and that I should live up to their expectations. 

Who are the people you look up to for inspiration among the present generation of politicians?

I like Shashi Tharoor. I like the way he debates. I have been following his debates. I also like Nirmala Sitharaman, the present finance minister. Among politicians from Odisha I liked Tathagat Satpathy. I have followed his debates.

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