Sandeep Sahu

Arvind Kejriwal hit the nail on the head on Thursday when he said there is no opposition in Odisha. There is a ruling party and two real or potential allies who have monopolized the entire political discourse among themselves for two decades leaving no scope for others to break in. But the big question is: who will break this stranglehold and initiate a new political narrative that puts the people and their interests at the forefront?

Aam Admi Party (AAP) has done it in Delhi. But can it replicate the experiment in Odisha? For that, it will first have to win the people’s mandate which, in the light of voting preferences of the electorate in the recent past, appears highly unlikely in the foreseeable future. Blind-folded with dollops of dole, voters in the state are unable to see beyond immediate gains for themselves and their families and repose their faith in a party that has their collective interests at heart but has never won power in the state. Competitive populism among the three major political parties – BJD, Congress and BJP – has only raised their expectations for more doles. No one has time for fundamental changes in areas like education, healthcare and public services that AAP has addressed quite efficiently and effectively.

At a time when government-run schools have become the last resort of those who cannot afford to send their children to the more expensive private schools in the rest of the country, the Kejriwal government has done the seemingly unthinkable by reversing the trend in Delhi. Government schools in Delhi are now the envy of their counterparts in the private sector. The Mohalla Clinic experiment has redefined delivery of healthcare to the people. A tough, non-nonsense has ensured that residents of the national capital now get essential services like electricity and water at affordable rates.

Of course, there is the difference in scale. Delhi, after all, is a city – and the national capital at that – with an area of less than 1500 sq km and with highly developed infrastructure already in place before the AAP entered the scene. Odisha, in contrast, is over 100 times bigger with vast stretches of remote, inaccessible areas with little or no infrastructure. A large population of poor, illiterate and tribals makes the task of improving basic amenities a much more daunting task than it is in Delhi.

But then, Odisha also has certain advantages that Delhi doesn’t: its vast natural resources, a long coastline and several rivers, nine agro-climatic zones conducive for a wide variety of crops, immense tourism potential and so on. If used properly, these advantages have the potential to transform the face of this land. If they haven’t been made use of so far, the fault lies with the priorities of successive governments. The first requirement for any meaningful and lasting change is intent which governments of all hues have sorely lacked. The only area where the ‘mainstream’ parties have shown intent is in perpetuating themselves in power – and clawing their way back to power, if they are in the Opposition. For the politicians who have ruled us over the last several decades, power has not been a means to usher in development and change but an end in itself. And that’s where the real problem lies.

In his speech at Lower PMG Square in Bhubaneswar on Thursday, Kejriwal made the point about ‘intent’ in telling fashion by contrasting power tariff in Odisha with that of Delhi. “Delhi doesn’t produce power like Odisha does. And yet, we are able to provide power to the people at Rs. 1 per unit while Odisha, which produces power, charges Rs. 5. 75 per unit,” he emphasized. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know that successive governments have allowed discoms to loot consumers for years. Keeping the looters in good humour has been their priority, not providing power to the people at a cost they can afford.

Though Kejriwal didn’t raise the issue, let us consider another area where the interests of many have been mortgaged to those of a few: procurement of paddy. The vice-like grip of the officer-rice miller- politician nexus has forced farmers across the state to distress sell their produce and allowed rice millers to recycle fraudulently procured PDS rice year after year. Everyone knows it. And yet, no government has made even a cursory attempt to break this stranglehold. The same goes for almost every other sector: vegetables and other cash crops, forest produce, fisheries, industry .. you name it. It may take longer than it has in Delhi, but things can certainly change in Odisha if the parties show some intent.

Left to themselves, none of the three major parties would ever show any intent till the people force them to. They will change tack only when they realize that it is not possible to seal their mouths with doles anymore. But this realization would not come on its own. It has to be forced down their unwilling throat - like a bitter pill - by the electorate. Till the people refuse to be hoodwinked and vote in exchange for doles and start demanding delivery of services they are entitled to, we will continue to be ‘ruled’ by people who see themselves as royals instead of ‘servants’.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are 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)