“I need to work on my public speaking skills. Since every word I utter is important, I have to be very careful about what I speak,” says Chandrani Murmu, 25, one of the youngest Lok Sabha candidates who is contesting from Keonjhar. Sunday being the last day of official campaigning before the polling in this constituency on April 23, Murmu along with the Assembly seat candidate Madhab Sardar is out in an open jeep on a road show to connect with voters in and around the Keonjhar town.
Born on June 16, 1993, Murmu does not have any prior political experience and is a surprise candidate of the BJD. She is pitted against former MP and BJP nominee Ananta Nayak. Several obstacles have been thrown her way since her candidature was announced on April 2. The BJP raised the issue of discrepancies found in her father’s name before the Chief Electoral Officer. There was also an obscene video with the morphed image of Murmu that went viral on the social media. Five accused have been arrested in this connection so far.
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Murmu, who graduated from ITER, Bhubaneswar, in 2017 with a degree in engineering, seems to have put these issues behind her as she greets bystanders with a smile. “I never thought there would be a slanderous campaign against me. No woman should be subjected to such humiliation,” says Murmu, who was born and brought up in this northern Odisha district.
While the BJD won Keonjhar in the last two elections, Nayak had won the seat for BJP in 2004 and 1999. This time, he is expected to put up a stiff fight as BJP is making inroads in Odisha. In Palas Ponga village, Bidyadhar Pradhan, 62, is supportive of Murmu’s candidature. “A young and new candidate should be given a chance,” he says. Another villager, Pramila Das, 54, however, says, “This time, Nayak will make a comeback riding on the Modi wave.” Another major Lok Sabha candidate in this mineral-rich constituency is Fakir Mohan Naik of the Congress.
Murmu was applying for government jobs when the party approached her through her maternal uncle Harmohan Soren and asked if she would like to contest. The BJD, which has given tickets to seven women this time, was looking for an educated woman candidate for Keonjhar, a reserved tribal constituency, and Murmu decided to take the plunge. “Initially, I was nervous. My main concern was whether people would have faith in me. However, now after getting the love of people and experiencing the love they have for sankha (BJD symbol conch), I am more confident of winning.”
Murmu’s maternal grandfather, the late Harihar Soren, was elected to Parliament on a Congress ticket in 1980 and 1984. “While I was growing up in his home, the atmosphere there used to be politically-charged. So many people visited him and discussed political matters. Even when my grandfather was not an MP, he would always watch the telecast of Parliament sessions on Doordarshan,” she recalls.
With meeting and rallies occupying most of her time now, her life has undergone a complete change. She has gotten used to moving around in a sari even though she needs help draping it. She barely sleeps for 5 hours at night and food is the last thing on her mind while on the campaign trail. “There are days when we eat a simple meal at someone’s home while touring the constituency,” she says.
So far, Murmu’s most treasured experience has been to travel with Chief Minister and BJD chief Naveen Patnaik on helicopter to six different places in her constituency. “I am learning the ropes as I go. I have a long road ahead. Travelling across my constituency has acquainted me with the problems people are facing. If elected, I would try to solve the drinking water and unemployment problems,” she says.
She adds, “Once the polling is over on April 23, I need at least a day’s break. I will mostly sleep on that day.”