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BJP, BJD compete to mine Odisha’s history for electoral gain

LiveMint logoLiveMint 26-07-2017 Prashant K. Nanda

New Delhi: Enthused by its success in panchayat polls in February this year, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sharpened its focus on Odisha and is digging into a bit of history to try and create a “nationalist sentiment” in a state that is among a handful not ruled by it.

The ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) led by chief minister Naveen Patnaik also knows that ignoring history and the icons from the state can be counterproductive.

As political rhetoric sharpens, iconic freedom fighters, famous poets and an uprising in 1817 against the British rule have all been served up in lashings of history with an eye on 2019, when simultaneous elections will take place for both the Odisha assembly and the Lok Sabha.

In April, when the national executive of the BJP met in Bhubaneswar, it named the venue after the 19th century poet Bhima Bhoi, a respected figure in western Odisha and the coastal belt. On 20 July, the central government led by petroleum minister Dharmendra Pradhan and tribal affairs minister Jual Oram—both are from Odisha—commemorated the bicentenary celebrations of the 1817 Paika rebellion in Odisha against the British Raj. Culture minister Mahesh Sharma said the centre may hold an event in Odisha next and that Prime Minister Narendra Modi may visit the state on the occasion.

Sensing that the BJP is trying to usurp Odisha’s rich history, the Patnaik government upstaged the party, quickly passing a cabinet resolution on 19 July and writing to Union home minister Rajnath Singh asking him to declare the Paika rebellion as India’s first war of Independence. That status currently belongs to the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny.

“Other than Paika rebellion and Bhima Bhoi, we have been talking about freedom fighters like Surendra Sai, Bakshi Jagabandhu, Chakhi Khuntia and Rendo Majhi. These are icons that the ruling BJD ignored for years and is now talking about after we started spreading the good work they (the icons) have done for the state and the country,” said Jatin Mohanty, state secretary of the BJP in Odisha.

Mohanty himself has compiled a booklet on the heroes of Odisha and has no qualms admitting the campaign is aimed at connecting the BJP with the masses.

“History is part of a multi-pronged strategy of the party in the state. Our top leaders have said that peripheral history should not be ignored. The present day people of Odisha should feel proud about our past heroes and history. It does help in mass connect,” Mohanty said.

The BJD, while accusing the national party of doing politics in the name of history and heroes, is keeping two steps ahead on the issue.

In September, the regional party will host an international event on the Paika rebellion in Delhi, besides several small events and seminars in Odisha in the run-up. It has already announced a Rs1,000 crore urban water supply scheme in the name of freedom fighter Bakshi Jagabandhu and an irrigation scheme after Parbati Giri, another freedom fighter, said Tejeswar Parida, a BJD leader.

Parida said the BJD government has recently named a “new road and bridge connecting Bhubaneswar and Cuttack after Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose. Besides, we have unveiled nearly two dozen statues of state historical icons in recent months,” Parida said.

“What we are doing has logic—we want to make history look contemporary to young Odiyas. We are opening a Paika academy, a book has been compiled by the state government on this and organise more functions,” he said, adding that in 2017-18 the state will spend Rs10 million for events on the Paika rebellion, five times the amount it spent for the purpose in 2016-17.

“Honestly, what we are doing is rattling the BJD. For almost 17 years the BJD never talked about these issues and now they are trying to make up for lost time,” added Mohanty of BJP.

Jatindra Dash, a senior journalist and political analyst in Bhubaneswar sees clever moves afoot. “BJP takes up nationalist issues to get mass support. They are now doing this in Odisha sensing a chance in 2019 and digging history is a safe bet and good weapon to rely on. But after the panchayat poll awakening, the BJD is moving faster. The BJP talked about Paika rebellion and the BJD asked the centre to declare it the first war of independence. The centre cannot do this as it is a debatable issue and will face opposition from other states—that’s good news for BJD politically,” Dash said.

In the panchayat polls, the BJP won 297 zilla parishad seats, up from 36 in 2012 and was a close second to the BJD. The party is eyeing 120 seats in the 147-member Odisha assembly in 2019—up from a mere 10 now.

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