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|February 26, 1998|
Aska taken up completely with Naveen Patnaik
M I Khan
It is Naveen Patnaik all the way in this largely agrarian constituency, as the late Biju Patnaik's son wound up his campaign from the seat represented by his father. Unlike seven months ago, when he won the by-election from here simply because he was his father's son, today he has come into his own. The people will vote for him on February 28 not because of the Biju Patnaik legacy, but due to the work he has managed to do in so little a time.
And creditably, Naveen, who has spent long periods in New Delhi, does not even speak Oriya.
Both Patnaik Jr and his election symbol, the conch, have totally won over the villagers from this constituency, with even children pointing out that this was "sankha chetra (conch area)". Separating moong dal from the field, Harish Chand Pati said, "Naveenbabu is our sanrakhsak (protector), nobody can imagine what he did for us in the last six months. Nobody can defeat Naveenbabu here."
The overall impression one gets on studying the situation in three assembly segments out of four is that the Naveen retains a clear lead.
No doubt, he has a natural advantage as Biju Patnaik's son. But he converted this early advantage over the last seven months, winning people over with his genuine work. According to ex-serviceman Mangat Panda at Babenpur village near Aska town, " Yahan hawa sankha ka hi favour mein hai (everyone is in favour of the conch here). We are not supporting him because he is the son of Biju Patnaik, as an MP in the last seven months he has started a lot of work which nobody cared for in the last 50 years. He has given special attention to the acute water problem faced by people here."
Standing behind him, middleaged Kali Pradhan said although Naveen is not able to speak Oriya, his gentle behaviour has attracted the masses by the hordes.
With barely two days to go for the February 28 polls for this southern Orissa Lok Sabha seat, for the people here the election campaign has turned into a veritable festival of votes, locally called the Vote Jatra. Travelling from Berhampur to Aska, barely a distance of 40 km, is certainly an exciting experience for an outsider.
While a group of young men dressed in traditional attire danced all along Aska town and nearby areas and blew conch shells, another group clad in vibrant red shirts marched through the town beating drums. While the conch is the poll symbol of the Biju Janata Dal, the red represents the CPI which is also popular here. The BJD has hired a professional group of Sankhvas to blow conch shells to popularise its symbol.
Naveen is enjoying another advantage this time due to his alliance with the BJP. "All those who are against the Congress will vote for him," said a BJD leader. This factor also created panic in Congress circles which was hoping to take advantage of the CPI being in the fray.
The CPI, with a conservative 60,000 to 70,000 votes in its kitty, in fact held the key to the Janata Dal victory in the 1996 election when Biju Patnaik contested the seat and in the 1997 bypoll which his son won, by not putting up its candidate. It is a general view that along with the sympathy wave for Naveen after Biju Patnaik death, the CPI's support was also a major factor for his success. But this time there is a CPI candidate in the fray, who might cut into the BJD votes.
But its workers are putting up a brave front. "As the Congress is more or less missing from the ground, even if the CPI retains its votes, the BJD has nothing to worry." In fact, Congress leaders here admit that due to former party MP Ramachandra Rath, who allegedly alienated the people so much, the party has totally lost its face here. Rath is said to have turned the locals against the party by neglecting the constituency badly during his two terms. Naveen, who makes it a point to visit the constituency regularly, has proved to be very different.
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