BJP’s Dilip Ray campaigns in Rourkela. Picture by Uttam Kumar Pal
Rourkela, April 7: “Dil se Dilip Rai ek baar phir se (from the heart, Dilip Rai once again),” screams the slogan written across a huge billboard at the entrance to the city.
In a retort of sorts, another equally towering hoarding standing next to it makes this appeal to the voters: “Dil ke saath dimag chalao, Sarada bhai ko wapas lao (along with heart, also use your brains and re-elect Sarada bhai).”
A cultural melting pot, this constituency is witnessing a fierce war between former Union minister Dilip Ray, who is contesting on a BJP ticket, and Sarada Nayak of the BJD. The profusion of Hindi slogans is a tribute to the cosmopolitan culture of Rourkela, which gets its economic muscle from the steel plant, which was set up in the late 50s.
Around the steel plant has grown a massive urban hub complete with multi-storey residential complexes, supermarkets and parks. The business community in the town is enjoying every bit of this battle, whose outcome would depend on a lot on the way it votes. “Dilip babu is making a comeback into electoral politics after a long time. But with his down to earth manners, he has been able to strike a chord. We feel he is one of us,” said Khajanchi Prasad Gupta, a shop owner at Rourkela main market.
But Gupta admits in the same breath that it is going to be a difficult contest with Dilip facing the might of the entire ruling party. “It is almost a proxy war between him and chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who has made winning this seat a prestige issue. It is going to be a photo finish,” said the businessman.
His words find an echo throughout the constituency where the signs of the proxy battle are everywhere. The posters of Naveen are just as ubiquitous as that of his party candidate. In many a poster, they appear together appealing to the voters to retain their faith in the party. In a bid to embarrass the BJP candidate, the BJD is also invoking Biju Patnaik, Naveen’s father, who had been the chief mentor of Ray. “How can someone who once swore by Biju babu’s secular ideology ever join the BJP?” asked Jagan Bastia of Chhend.
There is no denying it is a grudge battle with Naveen out to settle a 12-year-old score with Ray, who, in 2002, walked out of the BJD to contest Rajya Sabha elections as an Independent. Ray won the election with as many as 12 BJD MLAs defying the party whip and voting in his favour, but the victory turned the chief minister against him forever. While that Rajya Sabha episode still rankles Naveen, he has also been nursing a suspicion about Ray and former minister Bijay Mohapatra, another BJD discard who is now in the BJP, hatching a conspiracy to unseat him.
Prestige is definitely at stake for Ray, who represented this constituency for two terms between 1985 and 1995 before opting for a Rajya Sabha seat and becoming a minister at the Centre. “I have, in a way, forgotten how to contest such elections. But, things are picking up. We are improving with each passing day,” said Ray, whose focus is on the slums, which constitute a sizeable vote chunk. The day he arrived in Rourkela to file his nomination, he declared that he would not let any slum to be demolished or shifted.
The strategy seems to be working for him in areas such as Bandamunda, Jhilpani, Jagda and Basanti colony where his campaign among the slum dwellers has generated tremendous response. Nayak, a two-time MLA, who was once considered a protégé of Ray, on the other hand, is focussing on Koel Nagar, Chhend and STI areas, his known strongholds.
That both the sides are pulling out all the stops to win this battle is evident from the high-voltage campaign with the entire city plastered with expensive banners, posters and cut-outs of the two candidates and loudspeakers blaring out catchy polls songs all the day long. Lagging far behind Ray and Nayak in terms of campaign is Congress candidate Prabhat Mohapatra, a former MLA, who is battling hard to make it a triangular contest. However, from all appearances he is unlikely to succeed.