The Bharatiya Janata Party leadership is under pressure from the party’s Odisha unit to make Prime Minister Narendra Modi contest next year’s Lok Sabha elections from the pilgrim town of Puri in the state. Sources say that the proposal is being considered by the party, which has set its eyes on conquering Odisha in the next general elections as it sees the state as the “Gateway to the East”. The party hopes that Odisha will open the doors to West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, and will centre all its focus on the state. But the absence of a leader matching the towering personality of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and a lack of a cohesive workers’ network at the grassroots are troubling the BJP.
However, riding high on PM Modi’s popularity and charisma, the party is looking for a repeat of Tripura in Odisha. The party thinks that fielding the Prime Minister from Puri will not only catch the imagination of the Odias but also Bengalis and Telugus alike. The beach town is both a major pilgrim centre and a tourist destination for all the three language communities. One of the most sacred places for practicing Hindus, Puri Dham houses the Sri Jagannath temple, one of the four top seats of Hinduism established by Adi Shankaracharya.
Apart from Odias, Bengalis also consider Puri as one of their most sacred places and culturally connect themselves to the 12th century shrine through Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. In fact, the economy of Puri is run by Bengalis, both as tourists and as entrepreneurs. While almost half of the tourists visiting the town come from Bengal, most of the hotels, restaurants and other businesses there are owned by Bengalis.
The “triad” of Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and Puri, gradually taking the shape of one metro city, has a sizable Bengali population, which still maintains strong cultural relations with Bengal. Moreover, Cuttack is the birthplace of the iconic freedom fighter Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali who later moved to Kolkata.
There are three more things of Odisha origin which Bengalis are culturally and emotionally attached to—the 12th-century Sanskrit poet Jaydev, the classic Odissi dance and the quintessential dessert Rasogola, called Rosogolla in Bengali. The point is that all these Odia-Bengali bonding is quite similar to that between Purvanchal (East Uttar Pradesh) and Paschim (West Bihar), because of which Modi had chosen Varanasi the last time. That temple town Puri resembles Varanasi in its religiosity is also a major factor.
The “tri-city” also has a good number of Telugu residents, while the southern parts of Odisha have an abundance of them. Many Telugus consider Puri a sacred place at par with Tirupati Balaji temple and regularly visit the Srimandir. Cuttack and Puri have localities named after them, while many commercial establishments owned by Telugus could be seen named after Odisha’s presiding deity Lord Jagannath.
In addition, many Andhraites have major business interests in Odisha, which invariably connect them to the state. While Kammas, a rich and powerful community among the Telugus, have a grip over most of the economic activities in southern Odisha, swathes of land in western Odisha are said to be owned by them. The saffron party wants to take advantage of these trade and cultural connections and influence the voters in the neighbouring states too on the lines of Varanasi.
Hence, it will be naïve to think as “incidental” the BJP’s choice of Cuttack to launch its celebrations from, marking the completion of PM Modi’s four years in office. The PM addressed a huge rally in the Silver City last week, listing his achievements. Notably, Modi had gone to West Bengal to attend the convocation at Vishwa Bharati University in Santiniketan a day before the Cuttack event.
Perhaps keeping the possibility of Modi contesting from Puri in future, BJP leaders seem to have done some spadework in the constituency beforehand. They inducted into the party last year, Upasana Mohapatra, daughter of the local Congress strongman, the late Lalatendu Bidyadhar “Lulu” Mohapatra, who was a direct descendant of the legendary freedom fighter, Buxi Jagabandhu Bidyadhar. The party has also been highlighting the fact that “Paika rebellion” in Odisha, led by Buxi (commander), was the first war of Independence, with the Central government giving huge grants for the cause.
Another point to be noted is that the BJP leadership could be seen giving Odisha more importance than necessary earlier also. PM Modi himself has always been saying that “India’s growth story shall never be complete until the eastern part of our country progresses at par with the western part.” Recently, when Modi was in Indonesia he specifically mentioned Odisha, praising its long maritime history and ancient trade links with South-East Asia.
As the Varanasi experiment turned out to be a huge success, there are strong indications that BJP wants to influence the voters of the neighbouring states in a similar pattern by fielding Modi from Puri this time. Though most of the top leaders The Sunday Guardian talked to admitted privately that work in that direction has already started at the ground level, none of them was ready to come on record, at least for the time being.
Apart from religious symbolism and cultural bonding with neighbours, the BJP strategists also seem to have done some hard calculations as far as electoral gains are concerned. It aims at making up the loss it may have to suffer in the party-ruled states due to anti-incumbency. That’s why the party is looking for greener pastures and foraying into fresh areas to add up numbers to its tally in the Lower House.
Odisha and the five states around it—West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh—together have 130 seats, giving the BJP a good reason to hunt for the east-south front. If the “Modi magic” really works in the region like it did in UP and Bihar, the party hopes to garner at least half of those seats. And with Modi looking for a safe seat other than Varanasi, Puri certainly fits into BJP’s scheme of things.
Interestingly, the word “juggernaut”, which has become a permanent suffix to Modi now, originates from “Jagannath” and means “his unstoppable gigantic chariot”. Even that gives BJP enough reasons to roll out its “Modi juggernaut” from the holy town of Puri, political observers conclude in lighter vein.