15 Jun 2019

A journalist and politician, Bhartruhari Mahatab was elected recently to the Lok Sabha for the sixth time. It is a record for the Cuttack constituency and a rare event for the Indian Parliament to get a member consecutively for the sixth time. His first attempt at electoral politics was in 1998 when he defeated Anadi Sahu of BJP. Since then he has been winning on and on. People chose him to be their preferred leader for the Lok Sabha on the BJD’s ticket in 1999, 2004, 2009, 2014 and now in 2019 as well.  A journalist and a senior member of Parliament, Mr Mahtab is well known for his powerful debates in the Lok Sabha. Recently he was in the news for the position of Deputy Speaker of the House. He spoke to political analyst Harihar Panda exclusively for India First on a wide range of issues.


As a member of Lok Sabha for the sixth time, please share your experience of fighting the election in Cuttack.


Firstly, there was a marked change in the 2019 elections, compared  to previous times. We faced a different adversary, which was a poor third in the 2014 or 2009 elections, but contested with full force this time. Of course, this election turned out to be a bipolar election. Secondly, I would say, the issues of development of Odisha and the concerns for Odias were also pushed forward for deliberation, as also the national matters. But I found people were more leader-centric. From the BJP side, it was Modi who was determining the agenda of discourse, while from the BJD it was Naveen Patnaik. Therefore, as a regional party, we were able to counter the BJP’s propaganda to a very good extent.


Have you ever thought that BJD would get such kind of majority and come to power again?


Yes, I was sure that BJD would come back to power. I was also hoping for us to get another two or three Parliament seats.


But why it did not happen?


Because we lost by a very slender margin. Like Pinaki Mishra in Puri won by only 11,000 votes, similarly in many constituencies, more than 10 lakhs votes were cast but our candidate lost by hardly 25,000-30,000 difference. That could have been overcome.


I’ll come to Cuttack and discuss your experience about fighting from there. But before that, as you were referring to Puri, may I ask how Sambit Patra of the BJP gained so much ground against your MP of three consecutive terms, Mr. Pinaki Mishra? Is it the Modi impact?


Actually I think the Congress has totally been decimated. In Puri Parliament seat, the Congress got hardly 44,000 votes. So practically speaking, as we have been in power for the past 20 years in, there were some distractors of BJD. But usually that was getting divided between the Congress and the BJP. This time, those were not divided – rather they were consolidated against the BJD in favour of the BJP. So it is the decimation of Congress that increased the vote of the BJP. That has also happened in Cuttack. Here the Congress has got hardly 99,000 votes, whereas it was getting more than 2 lakh votes since 1952, apart from the 2009 elections.


Even, in 2014 when Aparajita Mohanty, the cinema star who contested in 2014 had secured more than 2 lakhs 23,000 votes.  But this time it was only 99,000. It shows most of congress votes which are considered as anti-BJD votes are peculiarly forwarded to BJP, which was not expected. Because the BJP and Congress are rivals.


Do you think the BJP has become a formidable political force in the state now?


Yes, it has. In most of the constituencies today, it is BJP which is the prime challenger to us in parliament seats except Koraput and Nabarangpur. In the election of 2014, except Sunadargarh all 20 seats were equally divided between BJP and Congress for second position – but this time out of 21, there were more than 10-12 seats where BJP came second.


You said that the 2019 election was leader-centric. Do you think it is good for democracy?


For democracy it may be good, but a parliamentary democracy is turning into a presidential type.


As you hinted our forefathers, the constitution makers, had seen our future in a parliamentary form of government, which means members are elected to the legislature and then the legislature selects its leader for the country. But we are following the other form of democracy where votes casted in the name of a certain leader, be it Naveen in the state or Modi at the Centre. Some fear we may be heading towards anarchy.


No. As you see can in France, US and many other countries, the Presidential form has for long been there and there is no anarchy there.


Don’t you think the role of the MPs in India is getting diminished day by day with this trend?


Now this needs a longer answer. After 10th schedule was introduced in the Constitution, the political parties were recognised by the Constitution. Earlier, it was only the members who were recognised and expressed opinion outside and inside the house. That means they could cast their votes defying the party whip. But this freedom was limited. It is the party now, not an individual member who determines a common stand. And by that I mean it is the leader of the party who determines what to support. So the liberty of each member is virtually non-existent. The decision of the leader of the party is to be carried out because he represents the party inside the House and outside it too. The MP has to work as per the wishes of the leader.


If you were not a candidate from the BJD and filed your nomination from any other party, then could you win so smoothly?


But I have been in the BJD since the beginning. Why should I presume otherwise?


But you were in news earlier with speculation that the BJP wanted to poach you and you were also inclined to make a move.


There is no substance to this rumour, I’ve already made it clear.


What is the secret of your consecutive electoral victories?


There is no secret. What I can say is that the people have great faith in me. They love Naveen Patnaik. That is, I believe, why people vote for our party.


Does Bhartuhari Mahatab as an individual get the votes, or it is only Naveen Patnaik?


I don’t think so. It is Naveen Patnaik and Biju Janata Dal.


You told and wrote articles about equidistance in politics, in which you made it clear that it is not possible to maintain equidistance. You have also received a show-cause from your party. What will be your opinion on equidistance in politics in this post-election era?


Very recently I explained it. During election time, rather just before the elections, it goes with the manifesto. At the manifesto release programme, I explained how the stand of BJD is hardly different from its stand of 2014. In this election, it is in clear writing that whichever govt comes to Delhi and looks after our interest, that is Odisha’s interest, we will extend our hands of support to them. As CM categorically said very recently, we play the role of constructive opposition to the government at the Centre. We were maintaining constructive opposition and we are going to continue that.


Why has the stand been changed on equidistance?


There is actually no change of stand. In last five years, we have maintained that whatever the Central government does in interests of the state and nation will our support. That’s why we supported GST. We didn’t support the land acquisition amendment bill, Triple Talaq amendment bill or the citizenship amendment bill.  So there were a number of issues that we thought were not in the interests of the nation, so we did not support.


But the stand over demonetisation kept changing. In the initial days you supported it and later opposed  the same.


Our stand was that demonetisation checks black money. But what followed later was pity. People were forced to face difficulties, adequate funds were not available – so we challenged the government. But it was necessary to suck money out of those hoarders, but the management of the post-demonetosation situation was horrible. The process in which it was carried out was unprecedented. We criticised that, after all the Odisha government provided all support to RBI and bore the helicopter expenses for carrying currency.


Have you ever analysed the impact of the demonetisation? Has it resulted in any good?


In the long run it will, because the amount of money that was recovered came back to the banks, which provide the Income Tax Department and Enforcement Directorate  with all the necessary data. The data is very much available to the government and can be used for seven years to tax those persons and companies. Large numbers of shell companies were identified. So I cannot say demonetisation was bad for the health of economy; it was a necessity. But the manner in which it was made was really not good.


With fewer members of the Parliament, can the BJD make an impact in the Parliament as earlier? Do you support the NDA government as earlier?


Jesus had 12 disciples, he did not have plenty. Twelve is a good number. Presence of five women MPs with a parliamentary party is special. I think the BJD will show a mirror to other players of Indian politics in this regard. Of course, with 20 BJP people in the last Parliament, more time was allocated to us. I believe the time does not matter, but content of debate matters.  About supporting NDA, do you believe they need our support?


Some people have criticised the election of Pramila Bisoi as MP, Aska. As she neither knows English nor Hindi. How can she reflect Odisha’s interests in parliament?


That is a tragedy. To speak in the Parliament it is not necessary to know English of Hindi; she can speak in Odia and it can be translated to the members immediately. Many times it has happened in Parliament before. For instance, Kamraj or Annadurai, who only spoke in Tamil. So why should we feel so diffident. She comes with a certain knowledge, experience which none of us have. Let us have the patience to listen to her.


How you see the growth of BJP in Odisha?


It is at the cost of Congress. Always there are crests and tides in all political parties. As a regional party, there is lot of job to do for Odisha.


Some days ahead of the elections, it was rumoured that you were in touch with the BJP and may switch to that party. Your comments?


My joining the BJP is nothing but hearsay, and I’m unable to understand why would people believe that. I checked the BJP government in the parliament on many matters many a time, which the Congress or TMC could not do. But these things seldom get published in Odia media. That may be a reason, but I don’t blame them. I’m  proud to be a part and parcel of BJD since the beginning, and as a regional party, we have many things to do to get our message across in Delhi.


Your points of discussion inside the house was worth watching. You were also selected as an outstanding parliamentarian many times. Why are you not interested in state politics?


I’m not capable enough to be in state politics or contest for Assembly.


Do you think more capability is necessary?


Here I feel, others may take it otherwise but a very little  legislative job is done by an MLA, rather they are more involved or they are forced to get involved in doing other developmental jobs. But as a parliamentarian , there is more scope to do legislative jobs, hence my preference for it.


As a journalist and editor of the second oldest operational Odia newspaper in Odisha, what are your thoughts on the development of journalism in Odisha? It was alleged that the mainstream media is divided into two parts, one supported by the BJD and the other by the BJP.


That is a very sad part. I have been taught since the beginning of my career in journalism that you should write what you know and believe to be true. Don’t deem yourself as neutral. Nobody is neutral, because everybody has an opinion. If you have an opinion on something you should put forth your point with full force. People may like you, people may hate you but people cannot ignore you. What’s happening in journalism today can be seen from a recent example. Time magazine recently carried a cover story written by a Pakistani, where it was said Modi is a person who has disunited the country. Soon came another cover page where there was mention of him as a uniting force of the country.  How can you have two opinions in just four weeks? You cannot make an excuse by saying that the two stories were written by different people. Ultimately, the editor has some responsibility. I feel what Prajatantra is propagating for the past seven decades is that the government has a role to play in the development of the state. If the government fails to mitigate problems of the people then the newspapers have a role to play. Newspapers can critically evaluate a government and bring to the public their government’s strengths and weakness, successes and failures..


When political leaders are running newspapers and when all the mainstream media owners are in one party, as seen in Dharitri, Sambad and your daily, then how can you consider mainstream media independent and neutral?


I repeatedly say, I don’t want to be neutral. When you say the mainstream media is neutral, they always have to fall back on some businessman and corporate house. When a political person runs a newspaper to propagate his thoughts and beliefs, readers know he belongs to a certain party and hence his perspective.


But in Odisha, all heroes of the mainstream are in the same party. How can the reader can get the other side of the story, some ask.


I don’t think so. Dharitri is not in our party. He (Tathagat Satpathy) has not renewed his membership. During this election he was very categorical. When he was a member of our state council, that time too he was very critical. Many a time this was also appreciated by the leader of the party.

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