Abandoning the high-profile appearance he puts on television, BJP leader Sambit Patra is living the life of a hermit ever since he filed his nomination from Puri, a Lok Sabha constituency where the election has turned into a contest among spokespersons of three political parties. Patra is pitted against sitting MP Pinaki Mishra, a spokesman of BJD. Congress has fielded its state unit media cell chairman and chief spokesman Satya Prakash Nayak. The candidates are deploying the skills they have used during TV debates, to guide the public opinion in their favour in Puri, one of the four "dhams" for Hindus.
Wearing dhoti-kurta, topped with a typical Odia 'gamchha' (towel), Patra puts sandalwood paste on his forehead before he hits the campaign trail. At times, he takes a dip in a community pond and eats breakfast at homes of villagers, sitting on the floor.
"I am a typical Odia and my gamchha is its symbol. I am from a poor family and have dared to fight the ultra-rich BJD candidate who has never cared for the people," Patra said. Asked why he chose Puri, Patra said, "Because I was sent by Narendra Modi and called by Lord Jagannath. You cannot fight from here unless blessed by Lord Jagannath."
He said he was because Modi sent him to contest in Puri in his place. "There was a talk that Modi will contest from Puri. But Modiji sent me as his representative," the BJP nominee said. During campaigning, Patra meets people and tells them that they can speak to him about their problems. "I will directly speak to the prime minister for a solution (to the problems)."
He said, "Modi is not a person, he is an idea which can make every impossible possible." The BJP candidate has been accused of using Lord Jagannath for political gain. He was seen carrying a small idol of the Lord in his hands during a roadshow. But he defends doing so.
"An old man gifted it to me. I held it with respect. There is nothing wrong in it. Let the opposition people say what they want, I love Lord Jagannath and cannot put the idol down." Patra has a specific development plan for Puri. He has drafted a special manifesto for Puri which was released by Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh during campaigning on April 19. A doctor by profession, Patra also promises to ensure proper healthcare facilities in the area.
Patra said he is contesting from Puri "to end adharma (injustice)" and ensure development of people neglected by the sitting MP, Mishra of the BJD. Mishra is among the four party MPs who have been renominated by BJD to contest the election.
He criticised Patra's attire and dubbed him a product of Modi government's falsehood. "The BJP candidate has been using Lord Jagannth for political gain. The people of Puri will not accept it," Mishra said, adding falsehood has no place in Puri.
He said he has been fighting for the people who have elected him twice in a row ? in 2009 and 2014. Mishra said both BJP and Congress candidates are "outsiders" who have no link with Puri. "They are coming to Puri and shedding crocodile tears for the people only for election," he said adding they will leave once elections are over. "I am all along with the people," Mishra said.
Congress's Nayak, a journalist-turned-politician, who is contesting election for first time, also says that becoming a candidate in Puri is a matter of luck for him. "I, as a journalist, have fought for the people of Puri and will again do so now (as a politician). Where was the BJD MP when the state government handed over Lord Jagannath's land to a private company. I had raised voice against it," Nayak said.
Optimistic about his victory, he said people will reject BJD and BJP. BJP president Amit Shah held a roadshow in Puri on April 9 and BJD supremo and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik did that on April 19.
Puri is considered a BJD stronghold. Former Union minister Braja Kishore Tripathy was elected to Lok Sabha thrice (1998, 1999 and 2004) from Puri on BJD ticket and Mishra in 2009 and 2014. Mishra had won the seat as a Congress candidate in 1996.
Out of the seven assembly segments, BJD has MLAs in six (Puri, Pipili, Brahmagiri, Ranpur, Satyabadi and Nayagarh) while BJP has one MLA (Chilika). The polling in Puri Lok Sabha seat is scheduled in the third phase on April 23.