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The lessons of Orissa

No issues? There were issues. Parties missed out on raising them

Written by Debabrata Mohanty |
May 29, 2009 11:54:29 pm

Elections are the best and perhaps most appropriate time for political parties to raise issues that affect people’s lives. Traditionally,they are also the time when opposition parties dig out uncomfortable issues from the past,shining a spotlight on government conduct which may have concerned the electorate during its term.

And,in a year in which parliamentary polls appeared to have “no issues” or to be decided “locally”,a look at an assembly election might serve as a useful comparison. Yet it appears that in the concurrent assembly polls in Orissa,none of the three major parties — the Biju Janata Dal,the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress — seemed to have chosen to dwell on the issues that were central to state affairs over the past five years.

Needless to say,even in a state where all development indices are pathetically low and which is arguably the poorest state of the country,issues like hunger hardly figured. Why so,when rural Orissa,according to the Delhi-based Institute of Human Development,is struggling,with over 47 per cent below the poverty line? Every 11th child here dies before the age of five; and yet,bucking pro-governance trends,these issues have not been put before voters by either the government or the opposition.

What about other issues? The police firing in Kalinganagar,over land-use and industrialisation,and which led to the death of 13 tribals in 2006,did not find any place in the political discourse — though the state is a tribal-dominated region. Angry tribals blocked a local highway for over 14 months demanding the killings be investigated,insisting they would not give up land for the Tata steel plant. Yet neither the Congress nor the BJP embarrassed the state government over its dismal track record in resolving the knotty issue of displacement.

Then there’s the swift rise of leftwing extremism over the last two years,with the government ceding control to Maoists in districts like Malkangiri,Koraput,Gajapati and Kandhamal. Surely that merited more than just a mere mention in manifestos? Last year,the home ministry deemed Orissa the state worst affected by Maoist violence; a series of coordinated attacks inflicted heavy casualties. First the brazen attack on Nayagarh’s police armoury in February 2008; then the back-to-back attacks on the anti-Naxal Greyhounds in Malkangiri district and the landmine blast which killed 17 special-operations-group policemen. None of the parties discussed it during campaigning; Patnaik remained largely silent on Maoist attacks in his whirlwind election tours. He has conspicuously failed to rein in the Maoists; and yet neither the Congress nor the BJP ripped through him,as one might have expected them to.

Electorates are supposedly supposed to care about local issues; the fact is that even the most local of burning issues were suddenly dropped at election time. Consider the spurious medicine racket,which rocked Orissa in July 2007. It was a drug ring of massive proportions; 131 drugs available in the market had to be declared either sub-standard or spurious. A team from the state vigilance department told the Orissa high court that essential items like protein powder,morphine,anti-snake venom,and anti-cancer drugs were part of the spurious trade. But neither in Cuttack,from where the spurious drugs reportedly originated,or in Bolangir,where the racket was first busted,was it part of the political discourse.

So what mattered? Everyone expected that Naveen would seek votes on his “secular credentials” after distancing himself from the BJP over Kandhamal riots (and the past five years’ industrialisation initiatives); the BJD chief disappointed everyone by not raising the issues. Though he mumbled on TV and at a couple of election meetings about his “bones” being secular,the riots were simply not an electoral issue outside Kandhamal. Even the industrialisation initiatives and the string of MoUs he had signed in the last five years did not figure in his election campaign.

There was no direct mention of price rises and inflation in the campaign. But what actually mattered in the campaign was the subsidised rice scheme. The idea proved to be so

infectious for political discourse that parties sparred among themselves over who could provide cheaper rice. While the BJD said it would continue to provide rice at Rs 2 a kg to poorer sections,the BJP and the Congress joined the race announcing that they would give it at Re 1 a kg — as well as cheap dal and free salt as accompaniments. Competitive populism indeed,when there could have been so many different ways to break open issues.

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