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OPINION | Why BJD and BJP are Fighting Over Raghunath Mohapatra’s Nomination to Rajya Sabha

Ironically, it was politics that deprived him of a place in the Rajya Sabha in January, 2014 and it is politics again that has now ensured his entry into the House of Elders.

Sandeep Sahu |

Updated:July 15, 2018, 9:20 AM IST
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OPINION | Why BJD and BJP are Fighting Over Raghunath Mohapatra’s Nomination to Rajya Sabha
File photo of Pandit Raghunath Mohapatra (Image: Wikipedia)
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The wheel has come full circle for Pandit Raghunath Mohapatra. Denied the opportunity to enter the Rajya Sabha in 2014, the ace sculptor now finds his name etched in the history books as the first Odia in independent India’s history to be nominated to the Upper House by the President.

Ironically, it was politics that deprived him of a place in the Rajya Sabha in January, 2014 and it is politics again that has now ensured his entry into the House of Elders. If it was BJD that backed his candidature back in 2014, it is the BJP led government at the Centre that has now facilitated his entry into the Upper House.

In the biennial elections to the Upper House on the eve of the last general elections, he was an Independent candidate backed by the ruling BJD. All pre-election predictions by pundits suggested that the Padma Vibhushan awardee would win the polls since he had the full backing of BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik and the BJP had announced support for his candidature. But the result stunned Mohapatra as much as it did the pundits.

Former IPL chief and Congress leader Ranjib Biswal beat him to the post, cornering 29 first preference votes, while Mohaptra managed only 20. To put things in perspective, it was only the second occasion since the BJD came to power in the state in 2000 that a candidate officially fielded or supported by the ruling party had suffered a defeat in a Rajya Sabha poll, the first being former Union minister Dilip Ray who managed to win against all odds in 2002 by engineering extensive cross-voting from all three parties to win as an Independent despite all efforts by Naveen Patnaik to deny victory to his estranged party colleague.

The fact that the three official candidates – AU Singhdeo, Kalpataru Das and Sarojini Hembram – each polled more than the 30 first preference votes led to speculation that either the BJD, which had 108 MLAs in a House of 147 then, had got its electoral arithmetic all wrong or did not try hard enough to ensure a win for Mohapatra despite its public announcement of support. Conspiracy theorists had a field day as the vote of a BJD MLA was rejected, one of the six BJP MLAs abstained and another defied the party whip.

The bitterness of that election returned to haunt all the three major parties in the state as news about Pandit Mohapatra’s nomination hit the headlines on Saturday. The BJP as expected sought to take the high moral ground and whip up Odia pride by training its guns on the BJD for denying this illustrious son of the soil an opportunity to go the Rajya Sabha. The ruling party hit back accusing the saffron party of not lending its ‘full support’ to the renowned sculptor resulting in his defeat in 2014. The Congress washed its hands off the controversy with PCC chief Niranjan Patnaik pointing to the fact that Mohapatra was supported by the BJD, not the Congress.

On his part, Mohapatra sought to stay clear of the blame game when asked for his reaction on being nominated to the Rajya Sabha. If there was any bitterness in his mind about the BJD’s less-than-honest efforts to ensure his victory in 2014, he didn’t show it. Instead, the internationally acclaimed sculptor used the occasion to express gratitude to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “I had met him to plead for funds for my dream project of building a second Sun Temple, which would cost a whopping Rs. 500 crores. While I have bought some land to build the temple, I cannot do it on my own. The Prime Minister gave me a patient hearing. Only he and Lord Jagannath know what persuaded him to choose me for this honour,” Mohapatra said. Coming as it did on Rath Yatra day, no one missed the import of the reference to Lord Jagannath.

That the BJP has been wooing the wizard of stones has been evident for some time now. Significantly, BJP president Amit Shah squeezed out time to meet him as part of the party’s nationwide ‘Sampark se Samadhan’ programme even during his hectic visit to Bhubaneswar on July 1.

The courting of Raghunath Mohapatra, of course, is part of the BJP’s overall project of tugging at Odia pride, a strategy that paid the party rich dividends in Assam in 2016. Last year, the Modi government launched a big bash in New Delhi to announce a year-long celebration of the 200 years of the Paika Rebellion, touted by some historians to be the first War of Indian Independence. It left the Naveen Patnaik government, supposedly the repository of all regional pride, looking rather foolish.

It is possible that the promise of fulfilling his lifelong dream of building a second Sun Temple that has tilted the balance in favour of the BJP for Mohapatra. Coming from a family of traditional sculptors in Puri district that traces its origins to those who built the original Sun Temple at Konark, the ace sculptor feels visitors must have a chance to see the Sun Temple in all its resplendent glory in its original shape, and not the dilapidated temple they get to see now. He is believed to have purchased a patch of about 100 acres for the temple, but has got stuck after that for dearth of funds.

With his deft use of the hammer and chisel, Pandit Raghunath Mohapatra continues to breathe life into stones. His exquisite stone carvings adorn some of the best places in India and abroad. Among them are a six-foot tall statue of the Sun God carved out of grey sandstone in the Central Hall of Parliament, a 15-feet high Mukteswar Gate in red sandstone at Surjakund and a wooden image of Buddha at the Buddha temple in Paris. The Raghunath Mohaptar Arts & Crafts Foundation founded by him has already trained over 2000 budding sculptors.

Left to himself, the master craftsman would rather be left alone to chisel away at stone infusing life into it and teach the next generation of sculptors in the intricate art and craft of the Orissan style of stone carving and temple building. Unfortunately for him though, the BJD and the BJP are fighting a political battle over him.

Many Odias are also counting Sonal Mansingh, the ace Odissi dancer who was nominated to the Rajya Sabha along with Mohapatra, as an Odia ‘bahu’ by association since she was married to Lalit Mansingh, the illustrious diplomat and former foreign secretary who is an Odia. Mercifully, there is no talk of politics in her nomination.

(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
| Edited by: Parth Sharma
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