‘I’ve Always Been with the People’
Many congratulations on your victory from Berhampur. It was an emphatic win. What is the feeling like?
I was always confident that people will take the right decision. They are conscious citizens and know what is right and wrong. I had faith in them, in the development schemes launched by chief minister, Naveen Patnaik and in my own public contact. I have always been with people. All this was reflected in the result.
BJD’s Lok Sabha performance has not been as good as its assembly performance. The party had won 20 Lok Sabha seats last time but this time it had to content itself with just 12. Why?
Though there was no Modi wave in Odisha a section of voters, especially the younger voters showed a preference for Modi in the latter phases of voting. They had a feeling that he was better than the leaders of other national parties and could solve problems like unemployment. Yet another factor was politicisation of the armed forces. While the issue of surgical strikes will always remain debatable such use of armed forces for political gains had never been seen before. I think all these factors played a part.
But the overall performance of BJD in the state has been good. While it won a majority of the Lok Sabha seats at stake, it bagged as many as 112 assembly seats which is pretty good for a party that has been in saddle for nearly 20 years. What factors contributed to this?
Anti-incumbency factor just did not work in the case of chief minister Naveen Patnaik. His sterling performance and blemish-free public image made him the darling of people who realized that he was always there for them. Be it cyclone Titli or Fani, he has always ensured that government reaches the people with help and that vital services are restored as fast as possible. So his work was appreciated. Besides none of the opposition parties could project a leader who could match his charisma.
In the case of Odisha anti-incumbency seems to have been replaced by pro-incumbency. Such overwhelming public support for a leader is very rare. Your thoughts?
One of the most important reasons for this is his zero tolerance for corruption. He has always taken immediate and exemplary action in such cases. Secondly, his own public image remains completely unsullied. Despite controversies like mining and chit fund scams, no one has ever been able to prove his involvement in any kind of corruption. There has never been an iota of evidence against him. His honesty and integrity remain exemplary. People have great faith in him.
As a BJD MP what will be your priorities in the Parliament?
Chief minister had recently called a meeting of the newly elected BJD MPs. He made it clear that our stand on issues like special category state status to Odisha, Mahanadi and Polavaram remains the same and we will continue to fight to protect the interests of the state on all these issues. We will also carry forward the chief minister’s campaign for 33 percent reservation to women in state assemblies and the Parliament. Then there are constituency-specific issues for the MPs. In my case, I will focus on the completion of Gopalpur-Rayagada railway line which has been pending for sometime. Tourism development will also be one of my focus areas.
Why did you quit Congress and join the BJD?
In 2009 I lost the Lok Sabha election on Congress ticket. After that I tried to meet top Congress leaders including Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi to apprise them of the problems of the party in the state. I had hoped that things would improve. In the event they went from bad to worse. Nobody showed any interest in reviving the Congress though I kept trying from 2009 to 2018. Then I took the opinion of the people of my constituency, held meetings. Ninety percent of them wanted to me to change the party. It was in deference to their wishes that I joined the BJD. I must add here that Chief Minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik gave all of us who joined the BJD from the Congress due respect.
Congress’s performance in Odisha in the just concluded elections has been very bad. What factors are responsible for the downslide of the party in the state?
There are several factors responsible for the decline of the party in the state. The party organisation was not in the right state of readiness for fighting elections in an effective way. This is in sharp contrast to BJD where preparations keep going throughout the year. Leaders are kept on their toes 365 days of the year. Congress also suffers from infighting and lack of coordination among its leaders. Unless the party takes immediate corrective measures things are unlikely to improve.
Even before elections were announced, the Chief Minister had made it clear that Mahanadi dispute will be a major campaign issue for his party. Do you think injustice has been done to Odisha on Mahanadi?
Yes, Odisha has been treated unfairly as far as Mahanadi water distribution dispute is concerned. Chhattisgarh has built up dams and barrages upstream of the river without taking us into confidence and this is obstructing the flow of river water on our side. The matter is in the tribunal and we hope for justice. All along we have been fighting for justice on this issue.
On the special category issue BJP leaders have saying this is not possible as now there is no provision for this. And even when there was provision Odisha did not meet criteria like having international boundary? Your comments.
Odisha’s case is a special case as the state is at the receiving end of natural calamities almost every year. There is either cyclone or some other natural disaster. This is an aspect that must be taken into consideration in respect of Odisha’s claim. If need be rules should be relaxed to accommodate our demand which is completely justified. In a federal structure it is the duty of the central government to take into account and redress the grievances of states.
You are a seasoned politician and also have the experience of being a union minister. In your opinion what should be the strategy to ensure that Odisha’s interests are best protected?
See, we are a regional party committed to the development of the state. We are committed to go to any length to ensure that Odisha’s interests are protected. This is why despite following a policy of equidistance from Congress and BJP we have always ensured that state’s interest is never compromised. For us that is the overriding consideration. In a federal structure Centre’s help is always required for the development of states. The Prime Minister recently congratulated the chief minister on his spectacular victory and assured of his help to develop the state.
Despite BJD following a policy of equidistance from Congress and BJP we have seen your party siding with the BJP several times in the past. Why this duality?
There is no duality. We still follow the policy equidistance but on issues where interest of the state or the country is concerned we take a decision based on the issue. Our stand has always been issue-based which is the right policy to follow.
BJD’s Lok Sabha performance in western Odisha has not been good compared to its performance in the coastal belt. The BJP did extremely well in the western region. Why?
The BJP had also done well in western Odisha in the panchayat elections but then we came out on the top in the Bijepur assembly by-poll. The reasons for our performance in the region in the Lok Sabha elections are being analyzed. Detailed reports have been sought from Lok Sabha and assembly candidates who contested on BJD ticket from the region. The situation will be reviewed in detail.
The BJD government has launched many pro-people schemes in the state, specially targeted at the poorer sections of the society. These schemes have also helped the party reap rich electoral dividends. But opposition leaders call them populist stunts. How do you react to the charge?
We are a democratic and socialist republic. So governments should be committed to social development. Our party government in the state has been consistently trying to improve the lot of people, especially the poor people, through such schemes. Our sole aim is to ensure all-round growth. The opposition charge is politically motivated.