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regular-article-logo Thursday, 13 June 2024

Proxy war: Homecoming for Dharmendra Pradhan as Modi’s trusted cabinet minister takes on key Naveen aide

Pitted against Pradhan is the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) general secretary (organisation) Pranab Prakash Das, said to have the ears of chief minister Naveen Patnaik

Subhashish Mohanty Sambalpur Published 23.05.24, 07:32 AM
Union minister and Sambalpur candidate Dharmendra Pradhan (centre) on the campaign trail.

Union minister and Sambalpur candidate Dharmendra Pradhan (centre) on the campaign trail. Subhashish Mohanty.

The fight has come home.

Dharmendra Pradhan, one of the BJP’s most powerful cabinet ministers whose stars have been burning bright in the Narendra Modi era, is contesting a Lok Sabha election in his home state after 20 years, having found a route to Parliament through the Rajya Sabha from different states in the meantime.

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The Union minister of education and skill development and entrepreneurship has picked Sambalpur for his Lok Sabha return, a constituency that often can be the political barometer of western Odisha.

Pradhan did contest the 2009 Assembly elections from Pallahara, in neighbouring Angul district, but lost.

His homecoming will be tough though. Pitted against him is the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) general secretary (organisation) Pranab Prakash Das, said to have the ears of chief minister Naveen Patnaik.

It’s also a battle within a battle — the fight for Sambalpur is also a proxy contest between Prime Minister Modi and Naveen.

They have their prestige at stake. Pradhan is considered close to both Modi and Union home minister Amit Shah; Das is the number three in the BJD hierarchy after Naveen and his close aide V.K. Pandian.

Pradhan (54), popularly known as the “Ujjwala Man” because of the LPG connection scheme he implemented during his stint as Union petroleum and natural gas minister, is the face of the BJP in Odisha. It was the collapse of the alliance talks between the BJP and BJD on the eve of the polls that made Naveen pit Pranab Das aka Bobby (52) against Pradhan, making Sambalpur the toughest battleground in the state.

Das’s proximity to the chief minister is evident from the latter’s video message wishing Das on the day he filed his nomination papers from Sambalpur. “All the best Bobby, I am sure you will win,” Naveen said in his message, making it clear that it was a personal battle for him.

Pradhan, who is trying to strike a chord with the electorate by addressing them in the local dialect, cannot afford to lose since he is also being seen as a possible candidate for chief minister should the BJP win the Assembly. His lone Lok Sabha victory came in 2004 from Deogarh, a constituency his father Devendra Pradhan twice represented for the BJP but which has since been abolished following delimitation. Ever since he has been taking the Rajya Sabha route to Parliament, that too, from other states.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s close aide VK Pradhan (left) at an election meeting for Pranab Prakash Das.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s close aide VK Pradhan (left) at an election meeting for Pranab Prakash Das. Subhashish Mohanty

The BJD is making every effort to checkmate Pradhan. The Congress, which has fielded former MP Nagendra Pradhan, is trying hard to make the contest triangular but from all indications, it would be a duel between the BJP and BJD. The region had voted for the BJP in 2019.

Bobby, who comes from Jajpur in the coastal belt, carries the tag of an outsider which he has been trying hard to shake off.

Regional sentiments have come into play already. “Why should we vote for a person from the coastal belt?” asked Manoj Sharma, a businessman in Sambalpur town, the political and cultural nerve centre of western Odisha where people have since long held a grudge against coastal belt politicians who control the levers of power in the state.

Pradhan is targeting the BJD on the issue of “Odia pride”, asking why Naveen is not choosing an Odia as his successor, a reference to Tamil Nadu-born Pandian.

The BJD is raising the issue of an increase in the prices of LPG and other essential products and Pradhan’s lack of contribution to the area, including his failure to speed up the repair work of National Highway 55, the main link between Sambalpur and Bhubaneswar.

Farmer leaders are against both BJP and BJD. There were agitations in the entire Sambalpur belt when the Modi government passed the now-recalled farm laws in Parliament. They are also cut up with the state government which, they allege, had failed to manage the mandis where they sell their produce.

Ashok Pradhan, a farmer leader, said: “How can we forget the Centre’s plan to trap us with its three black laws? The minimum support price for rice has not increased. Now the BJP has announced they would increase the MSP to 3,100. But we don’t believe them. Similarly, the BJD is yet to resolve the problems that farmers are facing in the mandis. There is also a shortage of cold storages.”

Farmer Pradhan has a list of complaints. “Though the Hirakud dam is here, we don’t have adequate irrigation facilities. We have appealed to all the farmers to vote as per their conscience and not to vote for BJD and BJP,” he said.

Asked whether it would not amount to indirect support for the Congress, Pradhan said: ”We can opt for NOTA (None of the Above) option too.”

Kendu leaf pluckers are unhappy with the Centre for imposing GST on kendu (tendu) leaves and bidi. Jhili Seth, a 26-year-old kendu leaf plucker told The Telegraph: “I am getting 300 per month. Earlier we used to get a 100 per cent bonus against what we earned. But it has been sliced down to 50 per cent because of the GST imposed on the kendu leaf.”

Vice-president, Odisha Kendu Patra Karmachari Sangha (Kendu Leaf Workers’ Organisation), Gokul Meher, said: “We are now paying 18 per cent GST on kendu Leaf. As kendu leaf comes under the state list, the state is returning its share of nine per cent under GST. Besides, we are paying 28 per cent GST on bidi. How can one pay GST on similar products twice? In the last three years, the Centre has collected Rs 100 crore as GST from the area. It has hit the earnings of around 15 lakh kendu leaf workers. The bonus amount has been reduced by 50 per cent. The BJP had announced to withdraw the GST on kendu leaf in 2019 but this did not happen.”

The Naveen government is also drawing flak, especially from weavers — a key community in this area known for its handwoven sarees and fabrics. “All the weaver cooperative societies are almost defunct. The weavers are not getting their due. There is a lot of resentment,” said Sambalpur native Ashish Kumar Meher, who teaches economics at Manipal University in Jaipur.

The Congress candidate, Nagendra Pradhan, who had won the seat on a BJD ticket in 2014, is trying to tap into the resentment against the BJP and BJD.

“Both the BJD and BJP have cheated us. What have we got over the years? Even we are not getting Indira awas houses. Congress rule was better,” said Pinku Singh, who resides near the Hirakud dam.

The BJP seems to be pinning its hopes mainly on the urban voters among whom Prime Minister Modi remains popular. However, the sympathy of the rural folk lies with the BJD government and they won’t betray Naveen Patnaik and his party.

“Besides cheap rice and old-age pension, Naveen babu has also given us a saree to wear. There is no reason why we should switch loyalties,” said Rutuma Majhi (68).

The BJD, besides the charisma of Naveen, is also banking on the goodwill it got after the recent renovation of the shrine of Maa Samaleswari, the presiding deity of western Odisha. The 40-crore project was inaugurated by the chief minister on January 27 amid much fanfare. “We are immensely grateful to the chief minister for developing the shrine which houses our presiding deity,” said Kamala Sahu, 46, a devotee.

Sambalpur votes on May 25

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