Lok Sabha elections: Across Odisha, a battle rages over govt schemes

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Updated: April 10, 2019 7:05 AM

Such is the divide, that on Tuesday, with just a day to go for voting, Patnaik approached the state’s chief electoral officer to lodge a complaint against the Election Commission’s decision to stop disbursement of funds to farmers under the Kalia scheme.

lok sabha election, 2019 election, lok sabha, State, Centre, Odisha, govt schemesOdisha CM Naveen Patnaik. (File Photo)

IT’S 7 pm, darkness has settled over Bahalpadar village. And Raju Tandi, a farmer, is a worried man. He’s not sure whether opening up about the elections would land him in trouble. “I hope it won’t affect the state government schemes that I benefit from,” he says.

From the state’s Kalia scheme for direct transfer of cash assistance to poor farmers, rice at Rs 1 and the Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana, to the Centre’s Ujjwala scheme for subsidised LPG cylinders — all the talk this election across Balangir district in western Odisha to Puri in the east and the coastal tip in Paradip is about schemes. About how have benefited, and who have not.

In Balangir’s Bahalpadar, Tandi and his neighbours are yet to get money under Kalia, the newest and most ambitious scheme that was rolled out by BJD supremo and chief minister Naveen Patnaik just a few weeks before the Lok Sabha and Assembly elections were declared. “If no one had got the money, it would have been fine. But we feel left out,” says Tandi.

Such is the divide, that on Tuesday, with just a day to go for voting, Patnaik approached the state’s chief electoral officer to lodge a complaint against the Election Commission’s decision to stop disbursement of funds to farmers under the Kalia scheme.

“Poor people don’t understand the technicalities. They don’t understand why the government has not been able to keep its promise. They are just angry… this affect the BJD’s chances,” says Saswant Khuntia, a betel-leaf farmer from Govindpur village on the coastal Jagatsinghpur district. Patnaik is seeking a fifth term in office and his party appears to be confident about its position in rural areas. But in towns and villages nearby, Patnaik’s conch, the party symbol, is in a fierce fight with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP’s lotus.

On one side, is the BJD’s strong network, built over the years at the ground level with a slew of welfare schemes. On the other, is the BJP’s propaganda blitzkrieg that has projected Modi as an “able, strong and daring” leader who “went ahead and gave a befitting reply to Pakistan” — but without the machinery to convert the goodwill for Modi into votes.

The verdict is still an open question but on the ground, a desire for “paribartan (change)” is gaining strength, especially in areas near Puri where BJP’s national spokesperson Sambit Patra is taking on BJD’s Pinaki Mishra.

“There is a Modi wind blowing here,” says Pandab Pradhan, a farmer who owns five hectares of land at Barapali in the Bargarh Lok Sabha constituency. His complaint is that Patnaik has not kept his promise of ensuring irrigation for 10,000 hectares of land in the region — the Gangadhar Meher lift irrigation project, cleared in 2017, is not yet complete. But with only around 15% of farmers getting the benefits of the central government’s crop insurance scheme, Pradhan’s choice is clear: Modi for Lok Sabha, BJD in Odisha.

At the Haldipali tehsil nearby, Prahlad Rana sees an edge for the BJP in the Lok Sabha polls because “Modi will benefit from the Balakot strike”. However, Pradhan and Rana claim that the BJP “bungled” in distributing tickets.

“For example, if Subhash Chouhan (an RSS activist who has been building the BJP’s network in western Odisha) was the candidate in Bargarh, the BJP would have won easily,” claims Rana. “It is a tight fight,” says Devendra Sahu, a shop-owner in Barpali. Sahu is among those waiting for the benefits of Kalia, and is proud that “Modiji gave a befitting reply to Pakistan for its antics”. In Bargarh, it’s a triangular contest between Pradeep Debata (Congress), Suresh Pujari (BJP) and senior BJD leader and Rajya Sabha MP Prasanna Acharya.

In villages across Odisha, though, Patnaik’s welfare schemes over the last 19 years continue to have a resonance, despite complaints about ill-equipped hospitals, lack of teachers in government schools and shortage of clean drinking water.

But BJD leaders like Pinaki Mishra, the Puri candidate, argue that the vote will be on “local flavour”. “Modi and Amit Shah work on propaganda, but that influences only committed BJP voters who believe that Modi can do no wrong. The BJP has consolidated that fringe vote. But beyond that, there is no traction for it in Odisha. The BJP’s ticket distribution was also disastrous,” claims Mishra.

The BJD also continues to draw support from women voters — Odisha has around 6 lakh women self help groups for whom the state announced `3 lakh interest-free loans this year.

However, in districts adjacent to Chhattisgarh, the Congress has some leverage, especially after coming to power in the neighbouring state. “After farmers in Chhattisgarh got loan waivers and bonus on paddy prices, farmers in Bargarh, the rice bowl of Odisha, have also started asking why can’t they get it,” says Lingaraj, a farmer activist.

“The Kalia scheme and the PM-Kisan scheme came as a response. But they have not yet reached many. On an average, in a village, only 15-20% of landless farmers got money under Kalia,” Lingaraj said.

In fact, the Election Commission’s decision to halt payment Kalia payments citing the Model Code of Conduct is now a campaign theme for the BJD. The party’s Balangir MP and candidate Kalikesh Narayan Singh Deo tells voters in every campaign rally: “Naveen Patnaik wanted to give you money, but Narendra Modi stopped it.”

Even the Centre’s Ujjwala scheme — the state has more than 40 lakh beneficiaries — has not really taken off. According to Subendu Kumar Sahu, a gas cylinder distributor, only 10% of Ujjwala beneficiaries return for refilling in his shop in Kendrapara’s Ansarpur. But with price of a cylinder coming down — `752.50 last week — the number is slowly going up, he says. “This time it will be a vote for Modi, although Baijayant Panda, who worked hard as an MP for the constituency before joining the BJP, will get his own votes too,” says Sahu.

In fact, many of those rooting for Modi or BJP were not able to recollect the other schemes initiated by the central government — what they spoke about was the “strikes on Pakistan” and the note ban that “has brought back black money”.

As for the Congress, the party still enjoys goodwill in some pockets. But it appears to have failed in launching a convincing campaign on its programmes, including Rahul Gandhi’s ambitious NYAY scheme that promises a minimum income guarantee for the poor. “We need to have a Congress government to do things and a party like BJP to campaign on its programmes,” says Bappi Circle, the Congress candidate in Paradip.

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