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Dealing with Fani: Naveen Patnaik's heroic leadership based on love for people vs BJP leadership actuated by winning Patkura assembly constituency in Odisha

By Satya Narayana Sahu | PUBLISHED: 11, Jun 2019, 23:23 pm IST | UPDATED: 16, Oct 2019, 5:40 am IST

Dealing with Fani: Naveen Patnaik's heroic leadership based on love for people vs BJP leadership actuated by winning Patkura assembly constituency in Odisha Election to Patkura Assembly constituency in Odisha scheduled to be held on 19th May was postponed by the Election Commission on the request of Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik who pleaded that the constituency would be badly hit by cyclone Fani and it would be difficult to organise election when people and the Government would be struggling to overcome the devastation caused by the natural calamity. The Election Commission acceded to the request of Shri Patnaik and postponed the election by two months. It is expected that election in Patkura would be held in July 2019.

Shri Dharmendra Pradhan of BJP disagreed with Chief Minister's request and demanded that election should be held as scheduled. He argued that if there was no plan to postpone election in Bengal on account of Fani cyclone then why should there be postponement of election in Patkura. The contrasting leadership of BJD and BJP, the former giving primacy to right to life in face of disaster caused by Fani cyclone and the later privileging electoral politics over right to life sums up the approaches followed by two political formations. It is important to understand the issue in depth.  

The gathering crises of apocalyptic proportions has been caused by cyclone Fani in Odisha which is worse since super cyclone that battered the State in 1999 and witnessed collapse of governance and State machinery in dealing with it. Fani has been described not only as a severe but an “extremely severe cyclone”. The frightening dimensions of its severity and intensity can be explained by its very origin near Equator in high seas beyond Bay of Bengal a week before its landfall. It traversed across the sea for such a long spell and gained more devastating strength. When a cyclone passes through sea for a longer period it becomes very lethal causing damage and havoc of terrible nature. That is the reason why the ferocity of Foni has caused horrible consequences for people of coastal areas of Odisha.

However it goes to the credit of Naveen Patnaik Government that because of its effective governance strategy to deal with natural calamities for almost two decades, it could shift more than a million people in a record time to shelters specifically built to keep them safe during natural disasters. The magnitude of such massive rescue operations has been captured beautifully in a New York Times article titled “How Do You Save a Million People From a Cyclone? Ask a Poor State in India” and authored by Hari Kumar, Jeffery Gettleman and Sameer Yasir. The article essentially acknowledges the global significance of disaster management plans of Odisha Government which have resulted in saving human lives and reducing casualty to very minimum levels.

Chief Minister Patnaik demanded postponement of election in an Assembly constituency because of cyclone and Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan opposed it

Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik who has set global bench mark of excellence in dealing with disasters and whose governance capability in this regard has been glowingly acknowledged by the UN became extremely sensitive to the gravity of the problem posed by Fani even before it had the land fall in coastal region of the State. It was amply manifested in his immediate action in visiting Delhi for meeting  the Chief Election Commissioner and urging for immediate  withdrawal of  Model Code Conduct enforced for conduct of recent elections to the Lok Sabha and State Assembly. He did so to get back the State Government’s complete control over the administration which the Election Commission took over with the coming into operation of the Model Code of Conduct following the declaration of the elections in March. He even requested the Chief Election Commissioner that the elections rescheduled for Patkura constituency, located in the coastal belt of Kendrapara, on 19th May 2019 following the sad demise of a candidate should be postponed to a later date so that State machinery would be completely free of election work and its entire capability would be employed to deal with the natural disaster and provide much needed succor to people in face of the apprehended devastation that would be wrought by it.

Bharatiya Janata Party represented by its leader and Union Minister for Petroleum and Natural Gas, Shri Dharmendra Pradhan, protested against Shri Patnaik’s request for postponement of elections and described it as a pressure exerted by the Chief Minister on Election Commission not to go ahead with scheduled conduct of polls. Shri Pradhan’s reasoning that if there is no demand for postponement of elections in West Bengal which would be severely impacted by Fani after its devastating effect on Odisha, then why Chief Minister Shri Patnaik is asking for postponement of election in only one constituency i.e. Patkura Constituency where he claimed BJD would be surely defeated. It is worthwhile to mention here that during election campaign Shri Naveen Patnaik stated in his several of his speeches that when Phailini, Hudhud and Titli cyclones devastated Odisha none among the top central leadership visited the State to stand by the victims of those disasters and yet the same leaders came to the State multiple times when elections were organized. In saying so Shri Patnaik was driving home the point that the central leadership always tuned to election process never had any sensitivity for  sorrows and pain of people reeling under one natural disaster after another. It was indicated in ample measure by the aforementioned stand taken by BJP leader Shri Dharmendra Pradhan. Thankfully the Election Commission postponed the election for Patkura assembly constituency and now it is expected that it would be held in July 2019.

Contrasting leadership of Naveen Patnaik and Dharmendra Pradhan: The former based on Love for people, the later for winning elections

What we learn from these is the contrasting leadership qualities of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik and Union Minister Shri Pradhan. While the former gives primacy to protection of life and property of people from  the impending disaster over fighting elections the later accords more importance to electoral politics and considers saving people’s lives as secondary and subservient to political goals pursued. It is expected that in face of disasters and danger to life of people caused by severity of natural calamities there would be unity among political formations cutting across their ideologies and worldview.

All rights flow from the right to life. If there is overwhelming danger to right to life of people because of extreme severity of natural disasters all political formations should rise above their political creed and unitedly face the challenge by keeping people at the core of their political persuasions. It is in this context one recalls the profound and sensitive words of Chief Minister Shri Patnaik. He while receiving the award of Ideal Chief Minister from former President of India Shrimati Pratibha Patil in Pune in January 2018 had said, “If you love your people you do not fight for elections, you fight for change and transformation”. The request of Shri Patnaik for postponement of election in Patkura Assembly constituency flows from his love for people whose life and property he wants to safeguard from cyclone Fani. In fact all concerned irrespective of political persuasion should have come forward to jointly face this natural calamity which was as severe as the super cyclone of 1999 that killed 10,0000 people in the State. We must be mindful that unity and solidarity in face of danger to people’s lives is paramount and everything else is secondary. It is extremely insensitive and heartless to bring in political or election related issues on such grave occasions marked by colossal danger to life of people.

Shri Dharmendra Pradhan’s demand that election should be held in Patkura on 19th May completely and willfully ignores that Patkura would be one of the worst affected in the zone of disaster and it would take months for people there to come out of the cataclysm wrought by Fani and think of elections and electoral politics. In according priority on elections over people’s trauma caused by natural disaster he clearly had no sympathy for the victims who expect their leaders to act beyond partisan politics for alleviating their suffering and restore normalcy. It is worthwhile to quote Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik’s ringing and thoughtful words yet again, “If you love your people you do not fight for elections, you fight for change and transformation”. Wise utterances of a leader with qualities of a statesman. What people of disaster affected areas of Odisha and particularly Patkura constituency need the most at this critical juncture is the spirit of statesmanship from our leaders who should be actuated by love and understanding for engaging themselves in coordinated effort to rescue them from the menace of marauding calamity, Fani. People struggling to overcome the cataclysm wrought by disaster hardly yearn for spirit of competitive electoral politics defining election contest. Let those leaders who remain tuned to elections have heart to reach out to the suffering humanity.

Biju Patnaik’s heroic and humanistic role in providing relief to people of Kendrapara at the time natural disaster

Let them recall late legendary Biju Patnaik who represented Rajnagar constituency in State Assembly in Kendrapara in early 1970s and rose to the occasion by flying his own helicopter and dropping food packets when vast regions of Kendrapara was hit by natural disaster. His heroic action combined with humanism and empathy for people made him an endearing figure who responded to the challenges  faced by people because of catastrophy wrought by natural disaster. The help rendered by him during the time of crises is part of the folklore of the region. He envisioned to make the area immune to disaster. Unity and solidarity of all concerned is a categorical imperative to fulfill that bold vision. It requires summoning of will power by transcending narrow calculus of politics and electioneering.

Unity cutting across political barrier required to face challenges of natural disaster

Our first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who spoke about the “tryst with destiny” in his famous mid night speech when India became independent on 15th August 1947 also referred to disasters and said, “Peace has been said to be indivisible; so is freedom, so is prosperity now and so also is disaster in this one world that can no longer be split into isolated fragments.” Seventy two years later the world of twenty first century is more united and globalized due to technology and at the same time has become more prone to natural disasters. We need more unity and solidarity than ever before to face the recurrent disasters the severity of which is extremely frightening. Sadly leaders like Dharmendra Pradhan were not sensitive to the pain and suffering of people and, therefore, privileged electoral politics over people’s agony and anguish caused by a natural disaster. The leaders who are driven by “Tryst with Pakoda” flowing from Prime Minister’s advice to unemployed youth to make Pakoda and make disparaging remarks on the author of “Tryst with Destiny” cannot have the sensitivities to remain tuned to the pulse of the people. They need to rise above politics to forge solidarity with people confronting life and death situation in face of natural disasters.

Example of Kerala flood and discriminatory treatment meted out by Union Govt

We all know that the State of Kerala which faced disastrous flood in 2018, described as the worst in last hundred  hundred years, received only Rupees Five Hundred crores from Modi Government to deal with a colossal devastation. It even blocked rupees seven hundred crore amount for Kerala announced by UAE Government. It was criticized for such partisan approach in dealing with disasters and disaster victims. What was required at that time was unity and solidarity and common touch and humanity. In 1924 when Kerala was hit by terrible flood what Mahatma Gandhi wrote on that occasion assumes relevance for twenty first century India and world which has become vulnerable to recurrent disasters.

In an article “Malabar Floods" written on 14th August 1924 he observed, floods in the Southern Presidency are so vast in their magnitude that imagination refuses to picture them. They demonstrate man’s helplessness. Fruits of years of patient toil have been swept away in a moment. Help seems almost a mockery". Stating that "the damage is too vast for sporadic or isolated effort" he prescribed for setting up of "Some agency that would command universal confidence to handle the work of relief". He added that "... Congressmen should not hesitate to help British Government agency in the face of this awful calamity." Appealing for relief from all quarters Gandhiji observed "None should ask how much money would be needed" and affirmed that ‘The more the merrier’ is the rule which applies here".

In 2018 when the State of Karala was hit by the fury of the flood the magnitude of which was more than the flood of 1924 "the more the merrier principle" for getting aid for Kerala was given a go by the Union Government which has allotted a paltry sum to the State and created many road blocks to receive aid from abroad by citing the so called policy of 2004 not to receive foreign aid even as the National Disaster Management Plan of 2016 provides for acceptance of foreign aid in the event natural disasters striking the States and different parts of India.

Mahatma Gandhi wanted united approach to deal with natural disaster

Mahatma Gandhi by asking Congress men to join hands with British Government to face the disaster caused by flood in Kerala in 1924 was underlining the need for unity and solidarity in those moments of crises of unimaginable  proportions. When Mahatma Gandhi’s one hundred and fiftieth birth anniversary is being celebrated across the country can public figures like Dharmendra Pradhan who is a Union Minister show some modicum of respect to the father of our nation and join hands with the Government of Odisha headed by Shri Naveen Patnaik to unitedly face the fury and ferocity of Fani in the State and Patkura particularly. It was important for him to rise above electoral politics and address the plight and suffering of people there and show unity with Chief Minister’s proposal to defer elections to a later date so that pressing requirements of people badly mired in disaster caused by Fani can be addressed and fulfilled by Naveen Patnaik Government. “More the merrier principle” which Gandhi had invoked for more aid for Kerala in 1924 is equally applicable to Odisha as well in such a situation when the unprecedented cyclone has caused unacceptable damage and devastation. It should be declared as a national calamity and will and resolve must be summoned across the country to rescue people out of this disaster. It would mean providing special category status for Odisha and fulfillment of eloquent words of Chief Minister Shri Naveen Patnaik, “If you love your people you do not fight for elections, you fight for change and transformation”.  

Every Calamity is a challenge to our nationhood

In 1950 the first Prime Minister of India Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru in a letter to Chief Ministers had insightfully written that “Indeed every calamity is a challenge to our nationhood...and a nation is ultimately judged by the way the challenge is accepted”. It entails for all political parties to rise above electoral politics to face the challenge to our nationhood posed by Fani.  

  • The author served as Officer on Special Duty and Press Secretary to President of India and had a tenure as Director in Prime Minister’s Office and Joint Secretary in Rajya Sabha Secretariat.The views expressed in the article are in his personal capacity.
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