By Sandeep Sahu
Four days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi presented Odisha as a ‘showpiece’ of poverty, starvation and unemployment at an election meeting in Gonda, Uttar Pradesh, the controversy over the rather unfortunate – and completely unwarranted – comment is showing no signs of abating any time soon. There is a lot of anger and outrage in the state over the Prime Minister’s ill-advised reference: in public and private conversations and social media, which has been duly echoed in the state Assembly through repeated adjournments.
The outrage is perfectly understandable. In drawing attention to Odisha’s poverty, Modi may have been trying to refurbish his party’s new found pro-poor credentials. His reference, after all, was in the context of the massive gains the BJP has made in the zila parishad elections this time. But the mocking tone was bound to touch a raw nerve in the people of the state.
But more importantly, it was at complete variance with what his Finance minister Arun Jaitley had said about Odisha just three months ago. Speaking at the plenary session of the Make in Odisha conclave in Bhubaneswar on December 2, 2016, the Finance minister had commended Odisha for bringing down poverty ‘by half’ in the last two decades.
So, who should we believe: the Prime Minister or the Finance Minister? It goes without saying that only one of them can be right. There is no way Odisha could have undone all that it had achieved in poverty alleviation in the last 20 years in the three months since Jaitley made his observation. If it is the Prime Minister who is speaking the truth now, then it is obvious that Jaitley was just trying to humour his good friend Naveen Patnaik, the Chief Minister of Odisha, in December last year.
As Leader of Opposition Naransingha Mishra rightly asked in the Assembly on Monday, did it take the Prime Minister nearly three years to realize that Odisha is poor? Equally justified was his demand for an answer on what his government had done about Odisha’s poverty in the three years it has been in power. Far from announcing any special package, the Modi government has actually shelved a host of poverty alleviation schemes, including the Odisha-specific KBK Yojana, and cut down allocations under several centrally-funded schemes. The Prime Minister’s attempt to present his government – and party – as the new messiah for a ‘poor’ state like Odisha was, therefore, both dishonest and outrageous.
Having said that, however, this columnist finds much of the outrage, especially among the politicians, contrived and hypocritical. As good friend Ramesh Rath pointed out in a Facebook post on Sunday, the two erstwhile opponents who suddenly find themselves on the same side of the battle lines – BJD and Congress – had no qualms about accusing the BJP – now their common foe – of pumping in huge sums of money to ‘buy’ votes during the just concluded panchayat elections in the state, thereby suggesting that we Odias sell our votes for money. But there was absolutely no outrage among those who have raised the battle cry of ‘Odia swabhimaan’ over this highly derogatory comment about the people of the state. Nor has there been any outrage when the state government has repeatedly rushed to the Centre with a begging bowl, demanding special category status or – at the very least – a generous special package. Our ‘swabhimaan’ obviously had gone on a long vacation when nearly 80% of us worked overtime to be registered as beneficiaries under the National Food Security Act (NFSA) despite the fact that only a little over 30% of us are ‘officially’ poor.
The bitter and unpalatable truth is Odisha is indeed a poor state – if not the poorest – and one does not have to be an Amartya Sen to know it. Figure jugglery cannot hide the fact that our state is at the bottom of the list when it comes to most human development indicators. And the two new comrades-in-arm at the forefront of the attack on Modi – the BJD and Congress – have to share a major part of the blame for this sorry state of affairs because they have ruled the state for the last four decades (the Janata Dal, after all, was the precursor of the BJD).
As for the rest of us who are up in arms over the PM’s comment, this author finds it a case of selective outrage, an expression of anger against who said it rather than what he said. Let us first shed this hypocrisy before we even attempt to do anything about the grinding poverty that has kept this state with abundant natural resources and immense potential for growth poor all these years.