AHEAD IN THE FINAL LAP
As the countdown to the 2019 elections commences, Naveen Patnaik seems poised to make history once again
The dates for simultaneous general and assembly elections in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh and Sikkim have finally been officially set, with Odisha being the only one where polling will take place in four phases instead of one. While the three other states will go to the polls on April 11, the Election Commission has decided that Odisha do the same on April 11, 18, 23 and 29.
Many see this as symbolic of the unique and increasingly important position of Odisha in the national electoral landscape, which is only too evident in the extra efforts that the Bharatiya Janata Party and Congress have been desperately making lately to end the Biju Janata Dal’s uninterrupted 19-year-long rule in the state.
As the march towards the big battle of 2019 is all set to gather momentum and steam from here on, there has been a lot of churning and burning in the political scene of Odisha so far this month.
Baijayant “Jay” Panda, former BJD leader and one of the founding members of the party, joined rival Bharatiya Janata Party on March 4.
This came as something of a shock to some, considering the former Kendrapada Member of Parliament had been a key member of the BJD and its face at the Centre for a long time, not to mention he was once widely believed to be one of the most trusted lieutenants of Odisha chief minister and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik.
Others were hardly surprised, given Panda had quit the BJD in late May last year, just a couple of weeks after submitting his resignation as Lok Sabha member, which was a few months after he was suspended from the BJD for alleged anti-party activities. His estrangement with Naveen had already been out in the open for long by that time.
Soon after officially joining the BJP and meeting party president Amit Shah at its headquarters in New Delhi, Panda told the press that he had taken this decision after intensive introspection and extensive consultations with his friends, colleagues and the public.
Claiming that governance in Odisha under the four-time chief minister has sharply deteriorated over the past few years, the four-time MP said: “I have decided to join work under the leadership of Narendra Modi to serve Odisha and India to the best of my ability.”
The next day, Tathagata Satpathy, another senior BJD leader and four-time MP, quit the party even as he announced his decision not to contest in the coming Lok Sabha elections.
Representing the Dhenkanal Lok Sabha constituency, the son of former Odisha Chief Minister Nandini Satpathy said: "Since Biju Patnaik had brought me to politics, I announce not to contest elections on his birth anniversary today.”
“I will not stay in any political party. I am returning to my old profession of journalism," said Satpathy, who is the owner and editor of the Odia daily newspaper Dharitri and English daily Orissa Post.
Many political observers, however, note that the real reason behind Satpathy’s decision might be something else, best known to the man himself.
Soon, another progeny of another former Odisha Chief Minister joined the BJD.
Sunita Biswal, Working Congress President of Sundargarh district and daughter of Hemananda Biswal, joined the BJD on March 9 in the presence of the Chief Minister at Naveen Niwas.
While her father is currently Chairman of the Disciplinary Committee of the Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee and has plans to contest the coming elections, Sunita revealed that she joined the BJD after being “inspired by Naveen Patnaik”.
Meanwhile, Naveen has been going about business as usual, putting the interests of the state and its people before his party and political ambitions – unlike his rivals.
At the start of this month, after the Railway Ministry announced the bifurcation of Bhubaneswar-headquartered East Coast Railway (ECoR) for creation of South Coast Railway (SCoR) that will be headquartered in Visakhapatnam, Naveen called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi to reorganise the railways in Odisha after the Centre created a separate zone for Andhra Pradesh.
Since the Centre created the SCoR in view of the geographical area of Andhra Pradesh, Naveen wrote to the Prime Minister, a similar consideration for Odisha could be made as well.
Seeking the Prime Minister's intervention to set up two new Railway divisions at Rourkela and Jajpur in order to unify railways in Odisha under one administrative zonal headquarter of ECoR, Naveen said: “Till such time, I would request in the interest of the people of Odisha, not to operationalise the declared SCoR at Visakhapatnam, which has been done without consultation with Odisha.”
Naveen reiterated that a robust and efficient railway network under a single administrative structure within Odisha was imperative to maintaining the pace of growth.
The Odisha chief minister also had tangible figures to prove that his request was no political rhetoric. "My government has also come forward to invest to bridge the funds gap in rail infrastructure … The commitment of my government to rail projects stands in excess of Rs 5,000 crore, signifying our focus and priority to this sector," Naveen said.
He pointed out that many major minerals were under the purview of zonal railways outside of Odisha, a state that boasts huge reserves of coal, iron ore, bauxite and manganese ore.
The next day, the Naveen Patnaik government announced the implementation of the 7th Pay Commission recommendations for Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) employees in the state.
Much to their delight, a statement from the Chief Minister’s Office revealed that the new pay structure would be effective retrospectively from April 1, 2016.
This move came not long after the BJD government effected a 3 per cent hike in Dearness Allowance (DA) for employees and pensioners.
Setting yet another example for the rest of the political powers in the country, the BJD launched a programme to seek Odisha people’s opinion for the drafting of its manifesto for the 2019 Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.
On the occasion of 103rd birth anniversary of his legendary father, the late Biju Patnaik, the BJD boss launched the 'Ghare Ghare Sankha: Matamata Diyanti Apana, Palana Karanti Naveen' (Conch in each house: You recommend, Naveen delivers) programme, under which the ruling party shall reach 86 lakh families to seek their inputs and opinions as it prepares its election manifesto.
As part of the programme, the party will inform people about the welfare programmes undertaken in Odisha, with its women’s wing members visiting households across the state to hand over printed forms and gather their opinions.
At around the same time, the state’s industrial sector saw some positive developments as well.
The Rs 28,700 crore investment proposal of the joint venture Haldia Petrochemicals Ltd (HPL), involving the establishment of an integrated refinery with aromatics complex for production of Paraxylene and Purified Terepthalic Acid (PTA) near Subarnarekha Port in Balasore district, was greenlighted by the High-Level Clearance Authority (HLCA), headed by Naveen.
This happened barely within three months after the West Bengal-based company had proposed investment of Rs 70,000 crore at the Make in Odisha Conclave global investors' meet last year.
The 2,000 acres of land that the project requires has also been identified.
Once the project becomes operational, its PTA can be used to set up downstream units in polyester fibers and polyethyl terephthalate (PET), things that several medium and small-scale enterprises need to make garments and food packaging products.
During the meeting, the HLCA also approved a few other important projects: an Indian Oil Corp proposal, involving investment of Rs 1,970.52 crore, to set up a polyester products manufacturing unit of 300 kilo tonnes per annum (KTPA) capacity in the upcoming textiles park in Bhadrak district; a Rs 1,677.98 crore proposal from private firm Rungta Mines Ltd for the expansion of its 5X100 tonnes per day (TPD) sponge iron plant to a 0.53 mtpa integrated steel plant at Karakolha in Keonjhar district, which will create about 1,100 job opportunities; and another proposal from the same firm for setting up an integrated steel plant of 0.53 mtpa capacity at Karakhendra in Keonjhar district at an investment of Rs 1,848.69 crore, which is expected to create another 943 jobs.
While reviewing the implementation of his party’s 2014 election promises at the latest Council of Ministers' meeting, which could be the last one of the BJD government before the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections, Naveen expressed satisfaction that his government had fulfilled promises made to the state’s 4.5 crore people five years ago.
He elaborated on it by presenting his party’s manifesto promises made ahead of the 2014 elections vis-à-vis the achievements of his government during his fourth term as Chief Minister.
"We had committed to convert all the kucha (temporary) houses in the rural areas into pucca (permanent) houses. During the last five years, we have constructed more than 20 lakh pucca houses for our people," Naveen stated.
He also noted that his government had increased the additional irrigation potential of the state by 9 lakh hectares and was in the process of taking the figure to 10 lakh hectares by May this year.
After shelter and water, he moved on to food.
"It is my firm belief that deserving people even if they are not in the BPL list must be covered under food security. Towards this objective, we are implementing our own Food Security Scheme," he added.
As for jobs, Naveen said education loans were being provided at 1 per cent interest, career counselling centres had been opened in universities and colleges, direct and indirect employment opportunities were being provided by his government to 12 lakh youths, out of which 1.12 lakh was in the government sector.
On the healthcare front, Naveen revealed that the government was providing universal health coverage through the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana as promised.
In fact, according to some sociopolitical observers, the BJD government went beyond the promises it made for women’s empowerment: For instance, it had promised to provide loans to self-help groups at the rate of one per cent, but was providing them at zero per cent rate instead.
However, the opposition had a rather different take on the subject.
Union Petroleum Minister Dharmendra Pradhan blasted Naveen’s claim about the BJD fulfilling its poll promises, saying it was the “biggest lie”.
The government has totally failed to even provide such basic facilities as drinking water, irrigation facilities, employment, and social security to the public, Pradhan told the media in the state capital, before adding that the Chief Minister excelled at appropriating credit for schemes that were actually implemented by the Central government.
"The State government claimed that it has converted 20 lakh kutcha houses into pucca houses in past five years, whereas 17 lakh houses are constructed under Central government schemes. And Naveen Patnaik is taking credit for this," the Minister stated.
In response to these allegations, BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra said Pradhan was “a habitual liar” who did not even have the courage to talk about BJP's manifesto.
“While the BJP manifesto promised to provide special category status to Odisha, it has failed to do so," Patra pointed out.
At present, the BJP is reaching out to the people of Odisha through campaigns such as 'Vijay Sankalp Abhiyan' where it is apprising the public of its policies.
"Nineteen years of misgovernance is enough. Now, it is high time to change the government in Odisha," said BJP state general secretary Prithviraj Harichandan.
Just like the BJP, the Congress has also been making plenty of promises to the people of Odisha.
While addressing a public meeting in Jeypore, Congress president Rahul Gandhi seemed focused on winning over women voters.
"We have taken some decisions in our manifesto for the women of Odisha. If Congress is voted to power in the state, all women will be provided free education, whether it be in engineering, medical, school, college or any other disciplines," Gandhi declared.
He assured financial assistance to poor girls for marriage and Rs 2,000 monthly pension for widows. He also resolved to appoint special women safety officers in every Gram Panchayat for checking violence against women in the state.
Gandhi also reiterated his offer of waiving farm loans and providing minimum support price for paddy of at least Rs 2,500 per quintal to the Odisha’s farmers.
The Congress president also slammed the Naveen Patnaik government, saying the Odisha government was run by 4-5 officers, not by the "voice of the people" of the state.
"While we are protecting the lands of the people, Patnaik is taking your land without asking you and handing over them to industrialists. He is benefiting a handful of people," he added.
Meanwhile, as usual, the Chief Minister was letting his work do most of the talking.
While speaking at the Mission Shakti programme in Kendrapara, Naveen announced there will be 33 per cent reservation for women in the allocation of Lok Sabha seats by his party in the coming general elections.
"I call upon the national political parties to be true to their words … and follow what they are propagating for women empowerment," the Chief Minister said.
This happened barely a year after the Odisha government passed a resolution in the state assembly to provide 33 per cent reservation for women in both the Parliament and state legislatures.
Expressing optimism that the women of Odisha will lead the women empowerment movement in India, the BJD chief said: "If India is to lead the world, if India is to be an advanced nation like America and China, then women empowerment is the only answer."
With his extensive development plans, comprehensive welfare schemes and timely troubleshooting, Naveen himself seems to have all the answers to the challenges facing his party and state, and the questions asked by his critics and political rivals.
When Odisha went to the polls back in 2014, the BJD won 117 out of the 147 assembly seats to form a majority government in the state. The way things stand today, it is highly likely that history will repeat itself more or less once again.