Bhubaneswar: If awe, eloquence and splendid use of technology are Prime Minister Narendra Modi's forte while reaching to his voters, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is fast catching up. Taking a leaf out of his political rival, the oft-reclusive Odisha chief minister converted an occasion like Children's Day to announce a slew of measures to improve education and in the process, prove his detractors wrong.
The state-level programme, held at the Capital High School grounds in Bhubaneswar with over 5,000 students from 24 schools in attendance, was beamed live to schools at district, block and village level from 11 am till noon.
What took most by surprise was the timing and the manner in which the programme was organised. With elections imminent in 2019, BJD insiders claim they're ready for a fight, even if Odisha goes to polls early. The BJP has already started a high-intensity campaign to garner "120+ seats in the state" as forecast by its party chief Amit Shah. Both the parties are engaged in a bitter fight for an imminent by-election in the Assembly constituency of Bijepur, in western Odisha.
One would think a chief minister’s invite to address school children on Children’s Day was rather warm and innocuous. But this occasion stood out for reasons more than one. This was probably the first one in which the chief minister was all smiles and warmth as he freely interacted with children at a public meet and was seen chatting with participants at length. His interactions at other public gatherings have largely remained rather lukewarm so far—partly due to security considerations and his rather ‘reserved’ nature. The chief minister has never taken part in a full-fledged press conference in these years, limiting his media bytes to predictable one-liners or ‘arranged’ ones with celebrity journalists.
Also unusual was the fact that the programme was livecast to over 65,000 government-run primary, upper primary and high schools, and this was over private TV and radio channels. Conservative estimates put the expenses at least Rs 200 crore. And the significant bundobust it involved at the ground level is unaccounted for. The critics, for once could be right. This may be less about Children’s Day and more of a grand show of BJD's influence and social reach in Odisha.
This show also silenced a lot of critics who were claiming for long that Patnaik doesn’t know Odia, can’t speak few sentences in Odia and therefore unfit to rule the state. Speaking in Odia, Patnaik invoked Jawaharlal Nehru and the late Odia leader Madhusudan Das, who as a child had repaired the road to his school and said today’s children must look up to the late leaders as their role model. "You must study hard, remember your duties to your parents and to the village and your state when you grow up," he said. While Patnaik spoke in Odia for almost over five minutes before lapsing into English, you could hear a pin drop at the large gathering. Sources say at least 10 days of rehearsals with a state-of-the-art teleprompter like the one Modi uses on his foreign trips to address the audience in English, did the trick. BJP spokeswoman Lekhasri Samantsinghar even posted a video of two teleprompter stands by the speaker’s side on stage to support her claim that gadgetry did the trick. But the damage was done.
The chief minister announced a comprehensive plan for a Rs 5,000 scholarship each to 10 students (Odia Bhasa Medha Bruti) each for excelling in Odia language in the Class X exam. Another Mukhya Mantri Medha Bruti (Chief Minister Meritorious Scholarship) in which 40,000 meritorious students from each Urban and Block areas will be felicitated with Rs 5,000 each was also announced. The scheme would also honour teachers and parents of the awardees, the chief minister said.
Patnaik also announced a "Mo School" campaign wherein alumni of a school can volunteer and contribute for the betterment of their alma mater. The government would provide a contributory grant to bolster this effort, he said.
All the schemes announced on Tuesday have a corpus fund worth Rs 100 crore. At the event in Bhubaneswar, more than 100 people signed up instantly as the patrons to contribute to the campaign.
But no sooner than the event was over, the critics were full of venom for BJD for hijacking the Children’s Day event for its own propaganda. "Shame to the nikamma (useless) government. In 17 years of reign they couldn't build roads to villages and are asking kids to repair it. The government that can’t pay its teachers but spends Rs 200 crore on such a function for self-promotion needs to be shown the door," said BJP spokeswoman SamantSinghar. She also alleged that Patnaik is using the kids as "pawns" in his political game.
Terming it as a "great betrayal of children on Children’s Day", state president of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Odisha Nishikanta Mohaptra said, "This government has pushed the state education sector into total disarray. Calling upon the alma mater to contribute when the state itself is not investing in educational infrastructure is just shirking of responsibility."
By walking to the dais from his car unaided and casually chitchatting, even joking with children at the function, Patnaik seems to have put all the rumours about his fragile health floating in the air and his reclusiveness to rest. "It’s great to see that he can mingle with children so easily, how can he be unreachable?" asked Manju, a parent who had accompanied her daughter to the gathering.
This seems to be a setback, at least temporarily, to the BJP which is trying to wiggle into his vote bank by claiming the state is not in able hands and with a leader who can’t even speak in his mother tongue. For a chief minister whose clean image has kept him in power for 17 years, nothing else should matter.
Published Date: Nov 14, 2017 21:50 PM | Updated Date: Nov 14, 2017 22:01 PM