Optics Lord over Sambit Patra’s poll prospects in Puri

While the BJD is playing up the temple transformation card to the hilt, the BJP has Modi and Sambit Patra on its scale.
Sambit Patra (left) and Arup Patnaik.
Sambit Patra (left) and Arup Patnaik.Illustration: Mandar Pardikar

PURI: Jay Jagannath. Welcome to the land of Jagannath, the Lord of the Universe,” Shankar Bindhani greeted a group of pilgrims from Chhattisgarh on Bada Danda (Grand Road), which leads to the Shree Jagannath temple in Puri, a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s roadshow in the temple city on Monday.

The tent worker had been digging holes on Bada Danda to put up barricades for PM Modi’s roadshow. He enthusiastically explained to the visitors the grand transformation and beautification of the Puri temple precincts under Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Srimandir Heritage Corridor (Parikrama) project. In the same vein, he called upon the group to stay back in Puri after the Lord’s darshan to witness the PM’s roadshow.

This sums up the mood and the factors in play in the Puri Lok Sabha constituency, one of the most prestigious seats in the state. While the BJD is playing up the temple transformation card to the hilt, the BJP has Modi and Sambit Patra on its scale.

In fact, Patra, the combative national spokesperson of BJP who was launched into electoral politics from Puri in 2019, had almost pulled off a stunning upset over four-time MP and lawyer Pinaki Misra. Taking the fight to the last rounds of counting, Patra lost by a slender margin of 11,714 votes. Despite the defeat, Patra has not left the constituency since. He chose to virtually vanish from national TV screens to utilise the past five years in moving around the constituency, touching households in each village, block and Assembly segments and building a personal connect with the people.

Sambit Patra (left) and Arup Patnaik.
Sambit Patra to fast for three days as penance for his comment on Lord Jagannath - PM Modi

As the Lok Sabha seat goes to polls in the sixth phase on May 25, his success in cultivating the field will be revealed. For the moment though, Patra seems to have managed to evoke positive sentiment across the constituency. However, at a time when Patra was widely perceived to have an edge in the contest, a faux pas he made on Monday when he said Lord Jagannath is a devotee of PM Modi cost him considerable goodwill.

Odisha CM Patnaik immediately latched on to the issue saying it’s an insult to the most-revered God of Odias, forcing Patra to make up for his mistake in his trademark style by announcing a three-day fast to atone for his sin.

The road is not easy for Patra as the BJD will pull all stops to retain the seat through its candidate Arup Patnaik, the former Mumbai police commissioner. It is a prestige battle for the BJD as it has played up the Rs 800 crore Srimandir Parikrama as its biggest achievement in the past five years. So much so, it tried to project it on the scale of Ayodhya Ram Mandir inauguration.

Losing Puri will be a loss of face for the BJD. To its discomfort, the sitting MP Misra declined to contest this election forcing it to nominate Arup Patnaik, the former Mumbai police commissioner, who had lost the 2019 polls from Bhubaneswar to BJP’s IASturned-politician Aparajita Sarangi. What could work in Patnaik’s favour is that he is a local, hailing from Delang under the constituency.

Patnaik has been a known name in the Puri district for his philanthropic activities including facilitating cancer care for patients during his time as Mumbai top cop. Propping up his commitment to public service and clean image, he emphasises on development and governance as the focal points of his campaign.

With promises of improving infrastructure in areas like Krushna Prasad, Chilika and Ranpur, addressing local issues, and fostering economic growth, he appeals to a diverse demographic beyond religious lines. For the BJP, it is the Modi wave and Sambit Patra report card.

Patra has presented a report card on the works undertaken by him in the Parliamentary constituency in the past five years. He was the first candidate to do so in the country despite losing the 2019 elections. He showcases the development done in infrastructure - railways, national highway and bridges and drinking water facilities apart from the religious sentiments that the party aims to capitalise. The Hindutva factor is also quite strong.

The weakened Congress has not much to show this time after its candidate journalist-turned-politician Sucharita Mohanty returned the ticket accusing the party of refusing to fund her campaign.

The party has nominated district congress committee president Jay Narayan Patnaik now. Made up of seven Assembly segments from three districts - Puri, Khurda and Nayagarh -- with around 15.8 lakh voters, Puri constituency assumes political significance as it is home to one of the ‘char dhams’ (four holiest destinations) in India. It has been a traditional Congress stronghold with the party winning it six times before it switched over to BJD.

The BJP has never tasted electoral success from this seat. Will Patra make the breakthrough? With just days for the polls, how his Jagannath remark will impact the results needs to be seen.

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