07 Jan 2019

Former minister and Rajya Sabha member Prasanna Acharya is among the senior-most leaders of Biju Janata Dal and considered close to chief minister Naveen Patnaik. The chief minister invariably consults him on important issues, be it resolving the Mahanadi dispute or giving the farmers their due. The veteran spoke to Ashutosh Mishra at length on a range of issues 


Farmers’ issues are suddenly in focus with every political party raising them at various fora. The BJD is no exception. Now you have planned an agitation in Delhi on the issue. What exactly is this agitation of BJD in Delhi on January 8 about?


We will sit on a day-long dharna and present a memorandum to the President of India demanding increase in the minimum support price (MSP) of farm products, especially paddy which is the main crop in Odisha. Though the BJP’s election commitment was to fix the MSP at 1.5 times the cost of production, the promise has not been kept. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first speech in the Parliament had reiterated this commitment but this is not being implemented. The Centre is talking in terms of Rs.1,750 as MSP whereas it should be Rs.2930 per quintal considering that the cost of production is Rs.2,300. Our party has been making this demand for the last two years. We had even passed a unanimous resolution in the state assembly on this but the Prime Minister did not agree to give us even five minutes. Hence, we have decided to raise our voice in Delhi.


The BJP lost assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh primarily because the party governments failed to address farmers’ issues. Has that made you wary and you have suddenly decided to organise a dharna in Delhi?


No it is not that. It is a mere coincidence that our agitational programme is taking place in the wake of announcements of results of elections in these states. The truth is that we have been highlighting farmers’ issues and raising the demand for increase in the MSP of paddy for a very long time. We also raised it in the state assembly.


There have been several farmer agitations in the state in the recent past, the most recent being the rally of Nav Nirman Krushak Sangthan with its members trying to enter the state capital from various directions. Has your decision to agitate in Delhi been influenced by these protests?


Farmer agitations are taking place in many parts of the country, including Odisha. I was myself associated with some of these agitations in my area. Late Kisan Patnaik was a prominent farmer leader of the state. Several organisations are taking up the cause of farmers. Our government has never tried to suppress the farmers because we believe in democracy. However, we want that protests must be organised in a proper manner. The truth is our government has been trying to solve the problems of farmers in a democratic way. We have formed a ministerial committee and are negotiating with their leaders. We are hopeful of the issue getting settled. But in my opinion there should be no politics over farmers' issues.


Elections are nearing. How well prepared is your party for the polls and what is going to be your strategy?


Organisationally we are always prepared from state to the village level to face elections.  Our organisational work goes on round the year, elections or no elections.  Our government has undertaken a number of developmental projects which have endeared it to the people. The popularity of our leader, chief minister Naveen Patnaik, remains unmatched. Though he has been ruling for around two decades now there are no specific allegations of corruption against him. More importantly power has not gone to his head. He is still very polite and down to earth which is the quality of a true leader. Recently our chief minister went to Surat where he praised Gujarat, but the Gujarat chief minister who was in Odisha the same day criticized Naveen Babu. That is the difference between our leader and others. With such a man leading us we are always ready to face elections.


Opposition leaders have described Naveen Patnaik’s welfare schemes as populist measures aimed at grabbing votes. They have called him an opportunist. How do you react?


All I can say is that we act and they react. Sometimes they criticize us deliberately but there cannot be a democracy without opposition. So irrespective of their criticism we continue to work for the people. The world heaped praises on our chief minister for the successful organisation of Men’s Hockey World Cup in Bhubaneswar. Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi congratulated Naveen Babu but the BJP in Odisha keeps making all kinds of allegations. For us our work is important.


You are seen as the BJD’s tallest and the most experienced leader in western Odisha where BJP did well in the last panchayat elections. The party even otherwise has old roots in the region. How do you propose to counter the BJP in western Odisha?


The BJP is not as strong in western Odisha as is being made out. Panchayat elections were a three-tier election. The BJP did well in the zila parishad polls which are fought on party symbols. It took advantage of the decline of Congress. But BJD won most of the gram panchayats and we had most of the block chairmen’s posts.  It is through gram panchayats and blocks that most of the schemes are executed. These are the most powerful bodies. Besides general elections would be a different ball game altogether.


How do you propose to counter the BJP organisationally?


We have done a lot of organisational work since the panchayat elections. We have gone right up to the ward level, forming ward committees and panchayat committees. We are quite strong now. The message of the good work being done by our government has also spread to the villages.


Time was when western Odisha’s sole identity was its rank poverty, droughts, stories of child sale and migration of labour. Has this image changed now?


Things are gradually changing but a lot still needs to be done in the area. Biju Babu used to say that development of India was not possible without the development of Odisha. We can say the same thing about western Odisha and Odisha. Development has to be even and regional imbalances have to be removed. We have to address both the problems and the sentiments of the people of western Odisha. Take for example the demand for a permanent High Court bench in western Odisha. This demand has been there for decades but the Centre keeps dilly-dallying on the issue. The bench can be set up only by an act of Parliament but the Centre keeps passing the buck to the state whereas our chief minister is ready to extend all cooperation including providing land for the purpose. The delay in the fulfilment of the demand is causing resentment among the people of western Odisha.


How serious is the Mahanadi problem? Do you think the row between Odisha and Chhattisgarh over the river can be settled with the change of government in the neighbouring state? At least Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee (OPCC) president is hopeful.


Mahanadi is a serious problem. When we started an agitation over the issue, we were mocked by many. I have seen the dam projects of Chhattisgarh over the river and we know that Odisha’s interests are going to be seriously hit. We all want an amicable solution to the problem and if the change of government in Chhattisgarh can bring this about it is welcome. But the way the Centre took a partisan view of the matter siding with the then BJP government in Chhattisgarh was most unfortunate.


Ever since Dilip Ray and Bijay Mohapatra quit the BJP there has been speculation that they may join the BJD. There has also been talk about the unity of erstwhile Janata Parivar members. Any comments?


I can’t comment on speculation. Such decisions in our party are taken by the party president. He alone will decide who to accept, and who not to.


Chief minister Naveen Patnaik has been a champion of women empowerment like his father Biju Patnaik. Recently the state assembly passed a resolution seeking 33 percent reservation for women in assemblies and parliament.  But do we actually have enough qualified women who can be given tickets to contest assembly and parliamentary polls?


Do you think all the men who get elected to parliament and assemblies are highly educated? In politics education is not the only thing. Equally important is your involvement in people’s cause, your dedication to your work. This country has many talented women. If they can be good engineers and doctors, why can’t they be good lawmakers? In 1992, Biju Babu had introduced 33 percent reservation for women in Panchayati Raj institutions, a bold step which was highly appreciated. In 2011, we made it 50 percent. There are many parliaments in the world with a strong presence of women. Our women are equally competent but they need a level playing field. We must ensure that in the larger interest of the country. Our party remains committed to the cause of women empowerment. We will continue to strive for this.

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