As the winter session of the Odisha Assembly opened on Tuesday, the ruling Biju Janata Dal despite its brute majority faced several embarrassing moments after the opposition BJP distributed laddoos to the ruling party MLAs.
The laddoo moment for the BJD was an effort by BJP to rub salt into the wounds of the ruling party a fortnight after BJD leader Pramila Mallik ridiculed the cases of farmer suicide suggesting that the opposition should give “Amar laddoos”(sweets of immortality) to the farmers. Mallik was later reprimanded by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, but the damage was done. Before Mallik, Cooperation Minister Damodar Rout and Agriculture Minister Pradip Maharathy too had brought embarrassment to BJD over their off-the-cuff remarks on farmer suicides.
In the largely agrarian Odisha, where over 120 farmers across the state have committed suicide since June this year, triggered by a widespread drought, BJD’s motormouth politicians have only added to the woes of the chief minister, who has been repeatedly voted by the state’s farmers for the last 15 years.
While farmer suicides have happened earlier also (from 418 in 1998 to 40 in 2009), this year’s deaths have got media traction due to proliferating TV channels and newspapers.
Though the government has steadfastly denied that any of the farmer deaths are due to crop failure, it has not shied away from asking the Centre for an interim assistance of Rs 1687 crore towards drought relief and mitigation.
Apart from announcing a Rs 1,000 crore package for drought-affected farmers last month at a farmers convention, Naveen announced a Rs 35,000 crore package for farmers in western Odisha assuring them of investment in irrigation.
But with 3-4 suicides being reported every week, the agrarian distress is going to be major weapon of attack for the Congress and the BJP. Having tasted blood though padyatras and agitational programmes last month, the two opposition parties have successfully turned the tables on the ruling party using an emotive issue like farmer suicide.
With panchayat polls less than a year away, BJD leaders are acutely aware that their steadfast denial of the realities of farm distress in rural Odisha would cost them at the hustings. Having refused to accept that any of the farmer deaths are due to crop failure, BJD leaders in the Assembly are now losing sleep over finding ways to explain why so many farmers died in such a short span of time.