Perched on top of a building near Puri’s Shree Jagannath Temple’s simha dwar (main entrance) is a massive hoarding featuring Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The hoarding urges people to vote for Modi once again for a “clean government without any scams”.
The rooftop on its left is occupied by another hoarding, featuring several BJD leaders – the late Biju Patnaik, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, MP candidate Pinaki Misra, and MLA candidate Maheswar Mohanty.
The adjacent building sports several cut-outs of the lotus – the BJP’s symbol – along with those of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah.
These three buildings face the busy Grand Road (also known as Bada Danda) – At one end of the road is the Jagannath Temple, and at the other, the Gundicha Temple, where the idols of the three deities reside during the nine-day Rath Yatra.
With the polling for the Puri Lok Sabha seat and seven Assembly constituencies scheduled for April 23, electioneering hit a high pitch in the last leg of the campaign. On Thursday, BJP Lok Sabha candidate Sambit Patra took part in three roadshows and one Jan Sabha, apart from an orchestra in the evening at Grand Road.
His opponent, Misra – the incumbent MP of Puri – too increased his campaign pitch, with multiple roadshows. He told The Indian Express that his “single-minded focus is to win”.
Coming under political focus in recent years, Puri had been spruced up as part of the Swachh Bharat Mission, along with nine other holy and famous cities of India.
With the city set for polls, the BJP, in its manifesto, has promised to make Puri “the cultural capital of India”. Another “manifesto” issued by Patra promises to make Puri a bigger tourist attraction, create job opportunities, sort out problems of the Jagannath Temple’s sevayats, and look into the matter of the state government not respecting the temple’s rituals.
The last assurance alludes to the displeasure over the state government’s handling of the temple affairs.
The BJP also piqued the curiosity of many an Odia by hinting that Modi may contest from the seat. However, BJD’s Misra has dismissed the BJP’s moves as “jumlas and nautanki”. “Modi’s partymen were crowing about him fighting from Puri. But then, he sent Patra to fight from this seat. The least Modi could have done is campaign for Patra, but he does not want to campaign for a losing seat,” he said.
“Puri is an absolutely impregnable fortress of the BJD. Six out of seven MLAs of Puri are BJD members. All you see is the razzmatazz of the BJP. They are jumlebaaz and nautankibaaz. When Modi’s popularity was its peak in 2014, their jumla didn’t work. I don’t see it happening now,” he added.
There has also been an attempt to invoke Lord Jagannath for electoral gains. Ever since his nomination was announced, Patra has been reiterating that “Jagannath dakichhanti, Modi patheichhanti (Jagannath has called me and Modi has sent me)”. The BJD has raised objections after the statement was printed on publicity material and a case was registered with the Puri police.
Earlier, the BJD had sought action against Patra for “blatantly using Lord Jagannath’s idol and name during his election campaign”. Even Modi has been greeting the crowd at rallies with a “Jai Jagannath”.
Misra says the politicisation of Jagannath would not work. “People of Puri don’t like Jagannath to be politicised or religion to be mixed with politics. Jagannath is a very secular God. During Rath Yatra, his rath (chariot) stops at the tomb of Salabeg (a 17th century Muslim poet). The temple may not allow non-Hindus, but the lord steps out to meet all his devotees,” he said.
Meanwhile, CM Patnaik’s pet scheme ‘KALIA’ – an acronym for Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation) – is how Odias fondly refer to Jagannath.
Notwithstanding the political battle over it, several civic and medical problems continue to nag Puri. Santosh Panda, 30, the owner of a kiosk on Grand Road, complains of water-logging whenever there is heavy rainfall. The residents of Chandanpur too have been facing the same ordeal for years when the nearby Bhargavi river is in spate.
Satyabadi resident Shyam Sundar Jena, 52, said, “Our top requirement is medical facilities. Even though we have a government hospital here, there is only one doctor, who keeps referring almost every case to Puri or Bhubaneswar hospitals.”
The crowd at the Jagannath Temple shows no sign of thinning even as the sun goes down. They queue up at the free mobile phone deposit counter before they go for darshan. Next to it, the temple’s loudspeaker plays songs, set on loop to the tune of popular Jagannath bhajans, spreading awareness about voting for their candidate of choice and not to be influenced by “mada, mansa and tanka (liquor, meat and money).”