Will Puri Parikrama project boost BJD’s prospects in Lok Sabha, assembly elections?

The project was inaugurated in January by CM Patnaik

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik walking down the corridor with King of Puri Gajpati Dibyasingha Deb and V.K. Pandian Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik walking down the corridor with King of Puri Gajpati Dibyasingha Deb and V.K. Pandian

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janta Party wanted to complete a new Ram temple at Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh—which could be considered to serve a political purpose besides strengthening the religious tourism base—before 2024 general elections, the same could be attributed to Puri Parikrama project at Sri Jagannath temple in Odisha’s holy city of Puri implemented by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his Biju Janta Dal government.

Both the projects were inaugurated in January of this year much before the election season began. The inauguration of the corridor around the iconic 12th century Jagannath temple had been done by Patnaik on January 17 while the prime minister did the same at Ayodhya five days later on January 22.

In both the cases, efforts were made to attract religious tourists. Of course, in Odisha, the BJD government has taken up development of other big temples in different parts of the state. For an agnostic like Patnaik, development of temples in the state could be a counter to BJP’s Hindutva besides development of tourism. Now that Odisha is going for four phases of polling for Lok Sabha and state assembly, which will be held from May 13 to June 1, temple development is an important election plank.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his first election meeting in the state on May 6 at Berhampur stated, “I was in Ayodhya yesterday and had darshan of Ram Lalla and today I am on the land of Mahaprabhu Lord Jagannath. Our Ram Lalla is now staying in the grand Ram temple and it was people’s vote that made it happen and it is the power of the people”.

Modi said two yagyas are being held simultaneously in Odisha. The one is being held for making a strong government at the Centre and the second for a strong BJP-led government in Odisha.

In his second electioneering in Odisha on May 10, Modi will hold a roadshow in Bhubaneswar. He will begin the roadshow from BJP’s state headquarters which is next to city’s main Ram Mandir built decades ago.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah while launching BJP’s election campaign in the state on April 25 at Sonepur in western Odisha accused Patnaik of trying to divert people’s attention from the consecration of the Ram temple at Ayodhya by inaugurating Puri Sri Mandir Parikrama project just days before. Shah said the BJD government has lowered the sanctity and dignity of religious places to promote tourism and promised to redevelop Puri along the lines of Kashi Viswanath temple in Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh which Prime Minister Modi had redeveloped.

BJP in its election advertisements for Odisha has publicized Modi’s guarantee for the state that assures distribution of dry Mahaprasad (Puri Jagannath temple’s offerings or Prasad) in all districts for which distribution centres will be opened. It also promises to distribute land to Maths and a provision of Rs 5 lakh for revival of each Math which are traditional Hindu institutions.

J.P. Nadda, the BJP national president, while releasing party’s Odisha manifesto (Sankalpa Patra) said once the party forms the government in the state, “all four gates in Puri Sri Jagannath temple will be opened for devotees”. Mismanagement of Jagannath temple trust will be done away with and the temple will be made world-class for the pilgrims coming to Puri, he said.

The Ratnabhandar (storeroom where ornaments of deities are stored for centuries) key will be brought on June 4, the day election results are out, for verification of ornaments. It may be mentioned this is a religious and political issue raised by all opposition parties and other organizations. The state government has formed a committee headed by former Supreme Court judge Arajit Pasayat which has already met once and the government will act as per the committee’s recommendation on how to go about it.

Odisha’s top BJP leader and Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan has blamed the BJD government for damaging the thousand-year-old heritage sites and monuments in Puri while implementing the Parikrama project. He said the well known Maths like Emar Math and Languli Math near the temple have been demolished in the name of Parikrama project. A seventh-century Devi temple near Sari Mandir has also been damaged. In other places of the state, heritage properties have been destroyed in the name of development, Pradhan alleged.

Congress spokesperson and party’s research cell chairman Rajani Mohanty said, “from day one our party has been pointing out issues of misappropriation in Parikrama project and damage to heritage sites near Puri Sri Jagannath temple”.

Arya Kumar Jnanendra, chairman of Congress Sevadal in Odisha, said: “We have been demanding to open all gates of Sri Jagannath temple besides proper assessment of Ratnabhandar properties which authorities are not listening to. In Puri Parikrama project, our allegation is that though there is huge expenditure, a lot of misutilisation and corruption have taken place”.

On the other hand, Chief Minister Patnaik has been asking people whether they are happy with the ‘heritage project’ besides other programmes of his government. This time in his unique style of campaign, Naveen has been making brief talks by asking people in the meetings whether they approve the main programmes he has launched.

Since Sri Jagannath is the reigning God of Odisha and Puri is one of the four ‘Dhams’ of India, election in Puri Lok Sabha seat and Puri assembly constituency could carry a bearing of Puri Parikrama project amounting to around Rs 3,500 crore. The project which started in 2021 is still under implementation, though the Parikrama corridor near the temple was inaugurated in January.

In 2019, the BJD had won Puri Lok Sabha seat whereas the BJP had won from Puri assembly segment. BJP has retained its 2019 candidates for both Lok Sabha and assembly seats. Dr Sambit Patra, party’s national spokesperson has been renominated as Puri Lok Sabha candidate this time while BJP’s Puri MLA Jayant Sarangi has also been renominated by party this time.

The BJD has new candidates for both Lok Sabha and assembly seats. Puri Lok Sabha seat is considered one of the prestigious constituencies of the state. Its outgoing MP Pinaki Mishra was BJD’s Lok Sabha leader. This time, he is not contesting. The party has been winning Puri Lok Sabha seat continuously from the inception of the party in late 90s. This time, it has fielded retired IPS officer Arup Patnaik who was the only Odia to become the Mumbai Police Commissioner. Arup belongs to Delang block under Puri Lok Sabha constituency. He has been doing social work in his village Udaypur where he has set up a public library and sponsors scholarships to meritorious students of the area every year for higher study. Residents of his area say he had helped them during 1999 super cyclone. Arup runs a social organization in Mumbai which provides free treatment for cancer patients.

“I will work dedicatedly for the development of Puri where the chief minister has given focus,” Arup said. In 2019, he had contested from Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency on BJD ticket bu lost to BJP’s Aparajita Sarangi, an ex-IAS officer. After that, Arup was made convenor of ‘Odisha Mo Parivar’, a social wing of BJD and was heading ‘Biju Yuba Vahini’ with cabinet minister status.

Sambit Patra, BJP’s Lok Sabha candidate for the second time, had lost by a slender margin in 2019. Even after the defeat, he had been in election mode was frequently coming from Delhi to his constituency. This apart, he effectively uses digital platforms to reach the electorates.

This time, Congress party was in news as its Puri Lok Sabha candidate Sucharita Mohanty, daughter of late congress leader Brajmohan Mohanty, surrendered party ticket because of alleged fund shortage. Her father was a minister in the state and at the Centre and also was the Speaker of Odisha assembly. Mohanty as a Congress candidate in 2014 Lok Sabha election had got 2.59 lakh plus votes pushing BJP’s Asok Sahu, a former IPS officer, to the third position. But, in 2019, the Congress fielded another candidate who got only 54,000 votes. Anyway, Mohanty returned party ticket and the Congress has fielded Puri district president Jaynarayan Patnaik.

In Puri assembly seat, BJD has fielded Mr Sunil Mohanty against BJP’s sitting MLA Jayant Sarangi. His late father Maheswar Mohanty was an MLA for a long time and was a cabinet minister under Naveen Patnaik and Speaker of the state assembly. In 2019, he lost against BJP’s Sarangi and later on passed away. The Congress has also changed its assembly candidate and fielded former Puri MLA Umaballav Rath.

In Puri, Odisha government is also developing an international airport. But elections will say the political impact of such projects. Though Puri Parikrama project has been acclaimed in whole state and outside, some local people differ about its political impact. Ipsit Pratihary, a servitor whose father was an MLA, says impact is adverse due to allegations about fund misappropriation during project implementation. Srivushan Shukla, a retired civil servant who settled in Bhubaneswar and belongs to Puri town, also says there is no political impact of the project. He says since old Maths were damaged for Parikrama project and no alternative arrangement for livelihood has been made, many are dissatisfied. But Rajkumar Mohanty, an advocate and local journalist, says the project has an overall positive impact for Puri and Odisha.

Like Puri, Chief Minister Patnaik has also redeveloped Maa Samaleswari temple at Sambalpur in western Odisha at a cost of Rs 150 crore, which has increased tourist inflow by ten times. Maa Samaleswari, popularly called Maa Samalei, is the reigning goddess of the western districts. Like Jagannath temples built in several other states and in foreign countries, there are Samaleswari temples in states outside Odisha, according to Tribikram Pradhan, president of Sambalpur Press Club.

Union minister Dharmendra Pradhan is contesting as the BJP candidate from Sambalpur Lok Sabha seat whereas the BJD has fielded its heavyweight Pranab Prakas Das, an MLA from Jajpur. He is party’s organisational secretary and is almost next to IAS officer-turned-BJD leader V.K. Pandian in party hierarchy, after party supremo Naveen Patnaik.

In 2019, the BJP candidates had won from Sambalpur Lok Sabha and assembly seats. BJP MLA Jaynarayan Mishra is the leader of opposition in the outgoing state assembly. Though sick, he is contesting again. From BJD, Rohit Pujari, an MLA from the district, is contesting against him.

How the temple developments will influence the poll results remains to be seen. The state government has developed major temples in different parts of the state. Chief Minister Patnaik, before launching party’s election campaign in his constituency, had sought blessings of his Ganjam district’s reigning goddess Maa Taratarini. He had redeveloped this temple near Purushottampur, too. Union Minister Pradhan had also sought blessings of Maa Samaleswari before filing nomination at Sambalpur.

Whatever be the results, for the first time, Odisha also witnesses the temple politics during elections.


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