Odishatv Bureau

General elections underway, constituencies are witnessing high voltage campaigns and mega road shows by senior leaders; all eyes on June 4th. To discuss the poll scenario, we have with us a very special guest, retired IAS officer and former secretary to the Government of India, Prasanna Mishra.

Two phases done, two are left in Odisha, public opinions indicate that the contest is even or rather more inclined towards a change, which way do you see the wind flowing?

You see, in the last quarter of a century, I had never seen such a keenly contested election as I am seeing this time in Odisha.

It is a truly contested election and that augurs well for democracy in our state. The state has been under the rule of BJD for close to 24 years and there is another current I feel for a change. How far that will materialize, the results will show, but indications are that the electorate has made up its mind and it will get reflected in the result.

Though not many would agree with me, but I distinctly feel that people are now talking about a change and what is more encouraging is that they talk similar talk one hears even in unexpected quarters, which used to be considered as the pocket borrows of the ruling dispensation. You see such, you hear such talk in bastis (slums), in tea stalls and the street hawkers, everybody is looking forward to a change.

Dispassionately speaking, the state has lost good deal of opportunities in these 24 years. The state could have progressed much faster and could have gone to greater heights and achievement in every sphere. But somehow or other we are, we seem to be content with the little achievements we have been able to register. We consistently maintain our humble position in almost many sectors of development, recently the ILO report on job creation, that is the case in point. It makes me very sad, from the year 2005 to 2023, 18 years, consistently the state secured the same position, the same bottom position so far as job creation is concerned. Wherever jobs are available, why is it that Odisha is losing out? This issue is never debated by the public. The distress-induced migration from the state makes every right-thinking person sad and it's a matter of shame.

And, it's quite ironical that the two constituencies, where from our popular chief minister is contesting this time, Hinjli and Kantabanji, both are known for being migration hotspots. Why should people leave their home and hearth and go to distant places, unknown places? I mean, not that they are earning quite a bit, they are doing all types of odd jobs, living in despicable condition and still the stream continues, unabated.

This is a matter of concern; this only shows that there is absolutely little economic activity worth its name in the villages. We cannot think about the state developing by showcasing a few mega-industries. That doesn't mean development. Development is a holistic concept and it has to manifest itself at the grassroots level. We have thoroughly failed in activating the productive forces of our people and the productive conditions prevalent all over the state. We have, I'll give you one or two instances, you see, Eastern Ghats provide innumerable picturesque places of altitude of 5000 feet to 5500 feet. I mean, you go to Gajapati, Kalahandi, old Koraput district, number of places where the altitude is between 5000 and 5500 feet. Can't we conceive of hill stations there, homestays there? I mean, that is how you will activate the rural economy. Tourism is a sector which is just being neglected systematically. You can't showcase your tourism achievement through some guest houses here and there. It has to be people's movement. Lakhs of people must be engaged in tourism activity. That is what holistic tourism means. It means taking a major part in the economic activity of the place. That's nowhere in picture.

Talking about development, I myself being a non-resident of Bhubaneswar, I feel that.., because I see the picture now in Bhubaneswar, there are development activities happening here and there. But in the interior pockets, if you see, there are quite a lot of problems; problems are galore. I feel Bhubaneswar doesn’t define the whole of Odisha. What's your take on that?

Yes, I mean, we are becoming increasingly myopic. We feel Bhubaneswar is the state of Odisha. We feel the state is confined to the secretariat. That sort of view could be considered a very narrow view of the state. We must all realize that we have four and a half crores of people, each of whom is potential enough to bring a lot of changes in the society. We have neglected  thoroughly our human resource. We have dumped on them a substandard education system. Look at the education reforms that are being talked about in the state. Our education reforms comprise some renovated school buildings, school uniform to the students and mid-day meal program for the students. Even that has become a failure.

Yes, and you spend millions and tom-tom the achievement. But at the same time, you have seen to it that there would be no teacher in the school, there would be little penetration of electricity and internet facility in the school. This is a skullduggery, deceit. It achieves the twin objective of winning votes and keeping your entire population semi-literate. These two objectives are being achieved with the type of education reforms we have brought about. People should talk about this. People should be aware of the bad consequences, the evil consequences such misconceived reforms would bring about in the state.

Health infrastructure. Again, look at the state of health of our grassroots health institutions. Most of our primary health centres are being run by the contract appointees of Ayush doctors. Many of the doctors are just not available, the regular doctors. We have a gross shortage, acute shortage of critical specialty care even in the community health centres, leave aside primary health centres. Mechanically, I mean a case comes and mechanically the person writes referred to the state headquarters hospital, referred to SCV medical college. This is not, no medical advice. There is rampant misuse of the money available under the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana.

I know for certain that people are just routinely dumped in the ICU and the bill keeps on ticking because a lady is entitled to 10 lakhs of rupees now. And it's good money for the corporate hospitals. The patient is in the ICU and a specialist service is requisitioned. The specialist is available on phone, a video connection is made to him. The fellow is in home and he speaks a few words that is recorded and he gets his fees. This is the rampant distortion that is going on. Aren't we seeing this? This is doing little help to the people in need. Lot of loot is going on under Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana.

It is not a swift process.

Yes, it is not a swift process. It's a torturous process, I agree. And look at the agriculture sector. You see, we started unnecessarily a lot of publicity, avoidable publicity on ragi cultivation. Hardly explaining to our state that we are no ragi producing state. There are one or two ragi producing states in the country which are doing extremely well. They account for bulk of the ragi production. We account for maybe 3-4% of ragi cultivation. Why this over-enthusiasm for spreading ragi and deprive our farmers for remunerative crops like cotton? I mean, one could grow cotton and yield much more revenue, much more income. We are ignoring cotton at the cost of ragi. Nobody questions because our political masters have very little knowledge about what's going on in the field. They never go out. They never see how a cauliflower is grown or a ragi looks like.

So, this is the reality and the state has been suffering. And it's now widely known that the chief minister has not been attending to office for many years. He doesn't go to the office. How does he administer? We can't afford the government to be outsourced to an extra constitutional authority. This is a basic constitutional issue. You can't contract it out. That is what it has been. It's a total flagrant violation of constitutional arrangement. People must know about it, must find an answer about it. We want an active government. We want an active cabinet. We want an active chief minister. He is the chief executive officer of the state government. He has to act as such. He can't just be a symbolic figure and at least visibly not do any worthwhile work. You can't continue with that sort of a system.

That is how the BJD is functioning right now.

Well, if that is how it is functioning, it's most unfortunate. It's a violation of our constitutional arrangement. And look at our attitude, the government attitude towards the legislature, which is the temple of administration, temple of parliamentary democracy.  It hardly meets. It meets for 30 days in a year, for 35 days in a year. Of course, many Indian states are following this example. Number of days the legislatures are in session. Number of days is going down and down. But look at what's happening in England, where the parliamentary system started. Even today, the British Parliament meets for more than 110 days in a year. And there the MPs are much more occupied in their own profession. Yet, the Parliament meets, the House of Commons meets for more than 110 years. The Prime Minister is subjected to grilling every one day in a week. Every week he is grilled. He can be put any questions and look at the system here. And the Chief Minister never answers questions in the Assembly. What is the big advantage in having a facade? Unless we really believe in the system, we must activate our legislature, we must activate our executive. That is how the democracy should work. It has almost become a regular phenomenon, like early adjournments.

Yes, there is hard governance in the state. That is a pity. And most surprising is the bureaucrats, right from Chief Secretary to the DG Police. I wonder where from do they get orders? How can the administration run if the Chief Secretary doesn't interact with the Chief Minister? How can the administration run if the DG Police doesn't interact with the Chief Minister?

So, do you think they are all inaccessible?

Well, at least the Chief Minister is inaccessible. And where from are they getting orders? How are they working really? I mean, these are fundamental questions which the people must seek an answer to. And the government is duty-bound to explain. You can't have this sort of a system where nothing works, no constitutional arrangement works. Then what is working? It's a contract system which is working. That's most unfortunate. So, these are the reasons, why I am at least convinced that the need for a change of government was never more urgent than it is now.

For BJP, the key issue this election has been Odia-Asmita. And also, they are focusing on development-based politics as their agenda. What's your take on that, especially this Odia Asmita?

Well, I have my views on that, maybe a bit strong views on that. You see, this government, BJP government, BJD government in the state never looked to me as an ideal political arrangement. 6 Right from the day one, from 2000, the head of the government appeared to me to be a laid-back leadership. It was more prone to outsourcing its constitutional responsibilities. It loved extra-constitutional arrangement right from the day one. We all know that an extra-constitutional arrangement was put in place right from 2000. That arrangement continued. After that, the person's influence declined. Some other person took over. But the arrangement didn't change much. And now, it's more open, more blatant, more brazen. And the constitutional financial impropriety, I'd like to dilate on that. You see, you have sworn to be loyal to the constitutional. You have sworn to be law-abiding. And you have to maintain financial propriety. You are the custodian of the state's exchequer. But the government, and particularly the head of the government, sought with that his favorite, a junior government official, would be given the necessary wherewithal to create his own image throughout the state. Hundreds of crores of public money were spent to create an image for him. Is it not a case of blatant misuse of government resources? Why is it that no accountability is being fixed with this sort of profligacy? Who has given the authority to whosoever has sanctioned this arrangement? Who has given the authority to this gentleman? So, this question needs an answer. At least the successor government must address this issue and find out the solution, and accountability needs to be fixed. That is one issue. Then second is, the extra-constitutional authority resigns from the IAS. Swiftly, the resignation is accepted. He becomes a public man overnight. But he retains some responsibility. What it means, I really don't know.

Nobody knows.

Probably that's an unknown virus, and a dangerous virus, I would say. But my grouse is, well, why did the national parties witness mutely the decimation of the Odia Pride all these years? They have all the agencies, particularly the party in power at the centre. They always saw what is happening to people of four and a half crores. Couldn't they see that the state is going down and down every day? Couldn't they have discharged their responsibility? But there was a feeling of camaraderie which prevailed all these years and that emboldened this intransigence of the present government. They thought they are lot with themselves. They can do anything they like. And that is what they did.

Was it because of the alliance they had earlier or was it because BJD supported BJP at the Centre on several issues?

Well, some people should go deep into it. Why couldn't the Centre or BJP not know what was going wrong with the state? How the Odia people were suffering? Now they say that the state has all the wealth in the world. They can run the economy of the country because of the huge natural resources the state has. Why was this realization not there all these years? There were hundreds of ways by which they could have intervened. They could have made their stand clear that fine we have had enough of camaraderie. We are putting you on task. For us the suffering Odias are more important than you being in the chair. That could have been told years ago. But still I am happy that this realization has come to date. I mean at least now. And they have found a good stick to beat the government with. Odia Asmita is being talked about. It's another matter that the Asmita had been suffering for years with a non-Odia speaking Chief Minister all these quarter of a century. Odia Asmita has been receiving the beating. Leave aside that. But now that the issue has come up let's think about it that a state which was the first state of its kind in India to be created on the basis of language that state is now finding itself being ruled by a non-Odia speaking person. This is a shameful thing to have happened. Shouldn't have happened. How his patron could pick up such a genius is a mystery to me. For what objective he has picked him up I really don't know. What agenda he has I really don't know. But my feeling is that should have been the last thing he should have done. But it has been done and it is time for Odiasto respond. And if the BJP is serious about it, they must carry it to its logical end should prevent this sort of distortion being perpetrated. We have a right to get back our lost Asmita, lost glory. The race must prosper. Odia must prosper. They must have their due place in the committee of states. They must be recognized as a hard-working talented race. Justice has been denied to them for 24 years. Now justice should prevail.

Do you find this election interesting? Particularly when both BJD and BJP both are viciously at loggerheads.

I find it quite interesting. I am happy that the top guns of BJP have made frequent visit to the state and they have spoken out very candidly. They have hit people at the right place. The head of the government has been spoken symbolically which sums up his style of governance. Nothing better could have been spoken and I am happy about it. But another thing, looking at the BJD, the party in power; it's surprising that a party, well-oiled party has not groomed any pan Odisha leadership. This is something very unfortunate. And somebody who is unable to speak Odia he is making a show of himself by going to this place and that place. Odia pride again gets a beating whenever he goes and addresses the people. It's another matter that the audience claps. But you know what type of audience we get these days. But the show is going on looks to me to be totally contrived show. There is no spontaneity in it. There is no love in it. There is no soul in it. It's a ruthless system and some people are hell bent on remaining in power at the cost of Odia pride and to perpetuate the non-Odia agenda they have perfected in the meantime. I mean look at it. I'll give you one example. One secretary of the government in a crucial department he remains in the position for 15 years and that's a sensitive department deals with urban property real estate where huge money transactions are made. The gentleman remains there for 15 years. For what? What holistic service has been rendered to the state by this uninterrupted tenure of that officer? Nobody is asking this question. Even political parties are silent about it. I am surprised. This sort of distortion and re-engagement of retired people. I mean again people are talking about a coterie of officials which is running the show. This is not an ideal system. The established system, the golden principles of public administration, hierarchical system of government, unity of command, these have all been destroyed systematically. It's one man show. What are we heading towards?

You have been a bureaucrat yourself, how do you see this bureaucratic system ruling the roost now?

There is no system now. There is no system. Actually the beauty of our system was that the civil servant always spoke his mind. I remember a number of occasions where personally I had differed with the chief minister. I had aired my difference before the chief minister and there are many occasions when the chief minister had accepted the differing opinion. I mean that is what we are paid for, to speak out our mind and that mind must be free, should be free from vested interest, free from narrow consideration. It should have only the interest of the state at heart and where is that sort of advice? If the chief secretary, if the chief minister is inaccessible to the DG police, to the director of intelligence, to the chief secretary, to the finance secretary, then how is the government being run? This is the question I am asking today.

Talking about the manifesto the BJD has released. They are promising about taking Odisha to number one position. Was 24 years not enough for them?

Well, one should ask some very simple questions. You see in 24 years, if you have maintained the 22nd position consistently for 18 years or 19 years in job creation only, how do you, I mean, gallop to the number one position? I mean, I am putting a very straight question. If you are at the bottom consistently in almost all critical sectors, how can you aspire to be at the top in another five years? This is only, I mean, brazen foolhardiness. There is no merit, no sense in it. This is wild gossip and people shouldn't accept that sort of unreal promises. There is no merit in it. If they continue, one thing is certain, that the state would continue to sit on the slide and will keep sliding. That much I am very sure about. So if we really mean a change taking place, it can happen. Change in style of government, change in the economy to take place, it has to be through a change of government. Nothing else.

Sir, if BJP wins or BJD wins or be it Congress, what do you think would be the one factor that will lead them to victory or will lead them to defeat? First let's talk about BJD. What could be that one factor?

That's a good question, but it's unfortunately a political question. I would, I had given you some background. Had it been pro-Odisha people right from the beginning, we should not have, we would not have been in this sort of a situation. 10 The party somehow or other didn't organize itself properly all these years. They talked, but at the booth level, there was no organization worth its name. So, you can't really become election ready overnight. It requires a lot of planning, a lot of hard work, a lot of groundwork, a dedicated people. There was again unfortunate, unhealthy competition about the leadership. My impression is the forces which wanted to be at the forefront, they were not liked by rank and file. That was another factor which didn't allow the party to have a healthy organic growth all these years. And if BJP doesn't perform well as expected, as we are hoping it should, then the reason would be this, because of their lack of preparedness, lack of organizational strength. Otherwise, issues are plenty. Issues are, I mean, huge number of issues are there. They could have cast in. Organizational weakness could be one factor. But the leadership is trying its best to make amends and that is probably making an impact, I would say.

Where does Congress stand in this picture?

Congress again is another sad story. It's a party definitely on decline. But I still hope that some Congress candidates would make it to the assembly, not because of the organizational strength, but because of their personal quality and personal charm and personal effort. So, there is no Congress wave factor as such in the state. They are destined to play a very minor role. That is how it is.

Sir, if there are only two choices, BJP and BJD, who do you think will make Odisha grow, as far as the current scenario is concerned?

This state is in dire need of a change. And since the incumbent government is the BJD, the change should be in favour of the other party.

So, coming over to the polling in other states, we have seen that the voting percentage has dropped quite a bit. Do you think the intensity has reduced compared to the previous two polls?

Well, actually, the election is being held during the peak of summer. This could be one factor which would have impacted the voter turnout. I mean, this is a very non-political explanation of the low voter turnout. But if you try to find out some political reason for this, there could be many factors. One is, if, for example, in a state, there is no opposition, the existing dispensation will have a cakewalk. The voters would go by that assessment and may not make the election a keenly contested election. Then, the young recruits to the voter list, young entrants to the voter list, first-timers, one needs to really know whether they have been enthusiastic about the election process, whether the parties have really made entry to that segment of the society. If they have not, then probably their participation could be small. These are some of the factors which could have influenced the voter turnout.

Sir, if the current ruling government at the Centre comes to power again, what are the major reforms you think it will take or it might take to boost the economy further?

Well, any serious government in the centre would have to address the economic issues the country is facing now. Job creation should be given top priority. The policy reforms must be such that India becomes a manufacturing hub. You see, look at the challenges we are now facing. Artificial intelligence is entering in full force. India had the advantage of Indians' brains which got engaged in software industry. But if AI has its way, the engagement in software sector would drastically go down. This is a possibility one cannot run away from. We have to get into manufacturing. We must produce. We must engage our people in manufacturing activities. South Korea has shown it. Japan has shown it. Malaysia has shown it. I mean, Vietnam is showing it. Small countries are showing it. And we have been doing, but we have to do a lot more. And we have to reorganise government. We have to go in for a smaller government. I find no reason why the Council of Ministers should have as many as 75 or 70 members. Why can't we? Why can't we go in for a smaller size Council of Ministers? There needs to be induction of more technocrats into the governing system. You know, these are again, my prescription is, the mantra should be more of production. Production alone will be the answer in the emerging scenario. 12 Sir, talking about the opposition, the INDI Alliance, which is led by the Congress, they have proposed the caste census, wealth redistribution, Muslim reservation or delimitation of reservation. How do you see? We have to part with certain archaic concepts. Issues which divide the concept of India should not be harped upon. We must accept our people as Indians. That should be their only identity. What will we get by dissecting? By dissecting the society, by looking at the society through a microscope? My basic issue is if we keep all opportunities, job or educational opportunities subject to reservation, then where is the space for merit or the left-out people in the country? There has been judicial decision that the reservation total should not exceed 50%. But that has been diluted in some cases. Suppose it becomes 75%. But the beneficiary of the 75% would be constituting only a small percentage of our total population. Now, a large number of people would be competing for only 25% of the opportunities. Can it be justified from the point of equity, social justice? Can we justify? This is the fundamental question which our politicians must address. My suggestion is, let's wholeheartedly improve the economic condition of the poor. Doesn't matter which group of society he belongs. The economic condition must be improved. Then every injustice would find its place for adjustment. There will be equity and social justice. That needs to be done.

Sir, if you were to rate the current BJP government over the last 10 years versus the previous Congress government that lasted from 2004 to 2014, how would you rate both these?

Well, the last government can be credited with the economic reforms which every political party would welcome. The present government, some policies should invite acclaim by every Indian. For example, the decision regarding Article 370. It's a decision, a bold decision which every Indian should hail and appreciate. The performance of the present government in containing terrorism is something admirable. Everyone should acknowledge that. 13 And certainly, a lot of behind the scene activity would be going on to ensure that India becomes a safe place and the terrorists are afraid of India. That's a great change which has come about.

Because India is responding?

Yes, I mean, we can't openly discuss what is being done, but it shows in results. And we are proud about it. And the present government has added to the pride of the nation. This is something which should make every Indian proud. Honestly speaking, I mean, the Indian-ness, our great culture, our value system, yoga, for example, these things are the quintessence of our civilization. By neglect, by indifference, this legacy woul d have been lost. I am proud as an Indian that such value systems are being revisited. And the efforts are showing results. And that is adding value to Indian-ness.

Sir, my last question to you would be, what do you see happening on June 4, in Odisha, especially? Do you think Khela Hobe?

Well, my feeling is the electorate would either give a clear message, mandate for a change, or if that is not there, they would have thrown enough indication suggesting a change. So, I would be surprised if there is no Khela after the election. I would welcome such Khela.

Thank you so much, sir, for giving us your valuable time.

My pleasure. I have tried my best to be candid and honest. If I have not come up to the expectation of the audience, it could be my fault. But to say that I have not come up with whatever I have felt would be wrong. I have tried to be as honest as possible.

Well, it was a delight to have you.

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