As a high-profile campaign for Puri Lok Sabha seat plays out, a familiar figure finds himself transported from AC news studios in New Delhi to the villages and by-lanes of Odisha. Sambit Patra has been bathing in ponds, eating on banana leaves, riding atop trucks and hugging strangers, in sweltering heat, a saffron gamchcha on his shoulders.
About his chances on a seat that the BJP’s state unit had proposed for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Patra, the BJP national spokesperson and a first-time Lok Sabha candidate, says, “I am fortunate that a seat for the PM, as discussed by the media, has come to me. People here see Sambit Patra as a representative of Modi… that he can approach the PM directly with their problems.”
Modi is a constant refrain in Patra’s speeches, and even outside them. As he drops in at the Government High School in Baku for an event to commemorate the PM, host Krushna Jagadeb tells him about the time in 1973 that Modi, as a young Sangh prachark, had come to the village. “Modiji was working for the Itihaas Sankalana Samiti (Rewriting of History Society),” says Jagadeb. “He spent a night at the verandah. The next day he took a bath in the pond outside the school.”
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Soon after, Patra removes his shirt and gets into the same pond. Seemingly oblivious to the media cameras, he chants some mantras while praying to the sun.
Later, he claims such “unscripted” interactions give him an edge over sitting BJD MP Pinaki Mishra. “In nine years, Pinakiji may not have visited Puri even once. People don’t recognise him… He has remained in Delhi, Patra tells The Indian Express.
Before the elections though, Patra himself was the BJP man for all quotes on national TV channels. On the other hand, Mishra has been in politics since the ’90s and has won Puri thrice, including once on a Congress ticket.
Puri, in fact, is turning out to be a contest of the spokespersons, with Mishra being one for the BJD, and Satya Nayak of the Congress the party spokesperson in the state.
In 2014, Mishra had won from Puri with a little over 50% of the votes, with the Congress getting around 25% and BJP 21%.
If not TV, Patra is buzzing on social media. Almost one in four images on his busy Twitter timeline has the beaming leader hugging voters, amid roadshows and interactions. BJP chief Amit Shah himself held a road show for Patra.
Despite his ‘celebrity’ stature, Patra says, his focus is “local”. He talks about the salty groundwater, rising crime rate, poorly maintained beaches.
In Sikharpur village, he enters one more pond. After the now routine chanting of mantras, still in the water, Patra takes questions from journalists. “People who bathe in tiled bathrooms cannot know the problems of villagers,” he quips.
Another routine is visiting temples, and there is few across Puri he has missed. The BJP workers trailing him, surviving on fruits and biscuits to beat the heat like Patra, tell people about “the Odiya boy who slays opponents in Delhi studios”.
But the reaction is mixed. In Puri town, the more educated and younger men are eager to see Patra. But the women and elderly are more circumspect. “Let’s hear what he has to say,” some say.
“Balakot air strikes and satellite missiles have no takers in Puri and Odisha,” admits a BJP volunteer from Bramhagiri.