Sandeep Sahu

The gloves are off, finally!!

Any lingering suspicion that this election will see another round of shadow-boxing between the BJD and BJP was firmly laid to rest by the two pugilists in the ring - Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chief Minister – on Saturday. Of course, it is entirely possible that the two ‘boxers’ will bury the hatchet, like they did after the 2019 elections, and go back to being friends again. But for now, there is no room for any doubt that this will be a bitter, fierce battle where no punches are pulled.  

It was Modi who landed the first punch at the rally in Phulbani in the morning and then followed it up with more rights jabs at the events in Balangir and Bargarh. By evening, Naveen came out with a full-blooded left-handed punch aimed at the rival’s temple. It was, however, not a knock-out round with Modi slightly ahead on points. The subsequent rounds will determine the final outcome of the bout. But for the people of Odisha, it is game on.  

During his hectic, intensive, day-long campaigning in Odisha on Saturday, Prime Minister Modi has gone where he had never gone before and breached many of the self-imposed 'no-go' areas in his attack on Naveen Patnaik both as a person and as a Chief Minister. If Berhampur and Nabarangpur on Monday gave an early indication that Modi is not going to play with kid gloves this time - as he has done for the last five years - the three back-to-back rallies in Phulbani, Balangir and Bargarh on Saturday laid any such thoughts firmly to rest with his frontal, no-holds-barred attack on the BJD supremo. And with the PM supposed to come campaigning to the state at least twice more, we can expect the bar to be raised even higher in the days ahead. 

The thing to note about Saturday's campaign across three Lok Sabha seats going to polls on May 20 is he has zeroed in on the Chief Minister's - and, by extension, the BJD's - Achilles heel and hit where it hurts the most. He had already set the ball rolling in Berhampur last Monday by making fun of Naveen Patnaik's inability - unwillingness, to be more accurate - to speak, read and write Odia while promising to write letters to those who had come with their self-made mementoes for the PM. "I am not like your Chief Minister. I will write to you in Odia," he had said to peals of laughter from the crowd.

On Saturday, he went several notches higher. In Phulbani, he dared Naveen to name all the districts in the state and their headquarters, sarcastically adding ‘without a piece of paper’. He played the same theme again in the next rally in Balangir, urging the people to ask the Chief Minister to name 10 villages in the Kantabanji constituency from where he is contesting the election, apart from his traditional seat of Hinjli. He also touched a raw nerve in the CM when he raised the issue of the missing keys of the Ratna Bhandar and the failure to do an inventory of the jewellery – something on which the Naveen Patnaik government has been on the backfoot for six years now. Modi rounded off his whistle-stop election tour with a shot aimed at the place where Naveen is at his most vulnerable at the moment - Kartik Pandian – without naming him but dubbing him the ‘Super Chief Minister’.

Naveen returned the favour in the evening via his customary recorded video where he reminded the Prime Minister about his unfulfilled promises, including doubling the MSP for paddy and two crore jobs for the youth. Mindful of the ‘Odia Asmita’ tune being played by BJP leaders, including PM Modi, ad nauseam, he asked why Odia had not been sanctioned any money by the Centre despite being a classical language whereas Sanskrit had been given Rs 1, 000 crores. He also reminded the PM that his government had rejected the state government’s plea for classical status to Odissi music twice. The last punch by the CM was on the non-conferment of Bharat Ratna to any Odia stalwart, including Biju Patnaik.

On balance, it is fair to say that though the first round ended in a draw, Modi was marginally ahead on points as he landed the more forceful punches. After all, a pre-recorded video message in halting, faltering Odia read out from the teleprompter and released on social media does not quite have the same impact as an extempore, full-throated rant delivered in front of a wildly cheering crowd of thousands.

But make no mistake. Naveen has quietly worked his way to five successive terms in office without ever being a rousing speaker and it will be a mistake to count him out at this stage.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.)