In politics, we don’t believe in enmity: Pradhan

The subtext lingers somewhere in between the lines: through denial, Pradhan is acknowledging his stature as the only national leader in his state.
In politics, we don’t believe in enmity: Pradhan

It isn’t easy being Dharmendra Pradhan. The BJP politician and Union minister whose mandate is to deliver the state which Naveen Patnaik has held in thrall for a quarter century. Pradhan by nature is a genial politician, born in the old mould in spite of his comparatively tender years in politics — his father Devendra Pradhan was one of Vajpayee’s ministers.

Pradhan is in Angul, a small town that falls in his constituency Sambalpur, having made all arrangements for his Prime Minister’s rally the next day. Modi was arriving there after his Puri roadshow, and Pradhan, one of the BJP’s best organisers, has pulled out the stops. The streets are festive with saffron: flags, buntings, posters and people wearing Modi masks.

Indian towns have quaint eccentricities, drawn from whimsical pantheons. Drive into Angul to meet its outlandish astonishment: a perfect life-size crimson and gold statue of Iron Man guarding a well-tended park. That day, it is fitting that India’s 21st century Iron Man Narendra Modi, will be landing in the maidaan at high noon. Pradhan, in a traditional dhoti kurta and a white porcelain lotus pinned to his chest is a far cry from Iron Man’s derring-do persona, but the iron in his soul is unmissable. Going by the fawning crowds along the road to the oval maidaan where the PM’s helicopter will descend, it is clear that the soft-spoken minister is Odisha’s only national leader.

Pradhan is dismissive of the label. “I’m a small karyakarta which has given me many responsibilities,” he gives the boilerplate platitude smart politicians give journalists; and thanks his Prime Minister’s largesse in giving him various missions at various times. “There is no concept of national leadership here. As a party worker and minister, I carry out my responsibilities to the best of my knowledge and understanding.” The subtext lingers somewhere in between the lines: through denial, Pradhan is acknowledging his stature as the only national leader in his state. It is a big deal.

It is also perhaps as an acknowledgement of Pradhan’s relevance that in February, Modi chose Sambalpur to kick off BJP’s Odisha campaign for simultaneous assembly and parliamentary polls; the PM announced infrastructure projects worth `68,000 crore. Modi’s last public rally in Odisha was in Kendrapara in April 2019, where Baijayant (Jay) Panda, Naveen Patnaik’s buddy-turned bête noire, is fighting the election for the third time. Both Jay and Pradhan have their own camps and coteries in Bhubaneswar, whose snarky scuttlebutt indicates little love’s labours lost. There couldn’t be a greater contrast between the two contenders for the same catbird seat: the soft-spoken Pradhan with his rustic touch and the to-the-manor-born Panda who can tell Merlot from Sancerre and fly an airplane low enough to skim the surf.

Skimming the surface to go deep sums up Pradhan’s world view, which refuses to accept that political parties with varied ideas and policies must thrive on hatred. “In politics, we don’t believe in enmity,” he explains, “Politics is competition — over ideas, programmes, policies and leadership.”

Leadership, as in all elections, is the big prize in Odisha. Twenty-five years in power have created a Patnaik generation that has seen nothing or nobody else. The youth are curious, but don’t seem totally convinced that the Modi Deal is the real deal: unfamiliarity breeds containment.

“BJP is promising to improve what BJD is doing. What is so special about it?” asks a young man at a Pradhan stump speech in the hamlet of Bamra, having paused taking selfies, to air his views. Among the older voters, BJD fatigue has set in, but the credits haven’t begun to roll yet. The profusion of gilded mirrors in Bhubaneswar’s eccentrically expensive Mayfair Hotel’s corridors are getting befuddled by too many people switching too many sides and parties. Even the Congress is having a field time, with candidates buying season tickets to ride both bandwagons; the party has stubborn pockets of influence left such as Koraput. A slanderous story doing the rounds in Sambalpur is that Pradhan’s BJD rival could switch to the BJP, but after the election: all conclusions are welcome.

In Bhubaneswar, where the feisty ex-bureaucrat and sitting BJP MP Aparajita is defending her pitch, a new rival’s Congress base could muddy the waters of Chilka Lake a bit. In Odisha, where no wave is visible, the phrase “it’s not the heat but the humidity” explains electoral dynamics best. The heat is being generated by the BJP while the atmosphere is getting humid in the BJD, which is being led from the front by former bureaucrat-turned-politcian Kartikeyan Pandian, who enjoys Patnaik’s confidence to an unprecedented degree.

The Prime Minister’s shotguns are aimed squarely at Pandian instead of Patnaik; political shu-shu has it that Modi and Patnaik share an amicable equation. BJD has voted for so many Modi-driven legislations that it almost appears to be an NDA ally. Why the rift now?

Pradhan swats the suggestion away. “There is no alliance, hence there is no rift. Cooperation in Parliament over issues of national importance is not an alliance. The Congress has supported us on issues like the Women’s Reservation Bill. Does it mean we have an alliance with them?”

Well played. Pradhan refuses to be drawn further into the Kaffeklastch. He would rather speak about his achievements as a minister about the Ujjwala Scheme, which has given women 100 million gas cylinders and the new education policy’s philosophical treatise, which he believes will be the next big document after the Constitution.

When asked about liberals and Leftist academics alleging that BJP is injecting the Indian education system with Hindutva, the education minister retorts, “When we speak about applied science and space tech, are we speaking of the BJP agenda? This kind of internal approach is parochial. There is unanimity in creating a new generation, which a few ignorant people are opposing.”

“Elsewhere, the BJP’s election campaign has communal overtones; it seems different in Odisha. There are reports of Christian conversions in the tribal belt.”

“It is not a communal issue, it is a social problem. Every region has its own specific concerns, and we plan our campaigns accordingly” is Pradhan’s response.

Dharmendra Pradhan’s campaigns, too, are planned to the last meticulous detail. Unlike many politicians, he is hardly ever late, having learned the importance of sticking to schedule from his boss.

“I’m one of you, be with me. Be there for you as I am there for you.” Suffused with energy and optimism, his face is flushed with the political vitamins of public adoration. He stays in his chair on the stage long after the speeches are over.

It is late afternoon and the sun is in a bad mood. Once everyone is done, the garlands gently discarded and waves and namastes returned, the candidate gets back into the helicopter. His energy flickers and fades. He has been covering thousands of miles, on foot, by car, and chopper, especially for the past two months.

The rotors begin to turn noisily. He peers down at the near-perfect circle of a waiting crowd. More words. More garlands. More smiles. More votes. He waves at the people of Sambhalpur. He is tired no more. Now, it is easy being Dharmendra Pradhan.

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