It’s just past 10am. Early February. In Naroda –a village in Balipatna block (Jaydev assembly constituency) of Khordha district- Aparajita Sarangi, followed by approximately over four hundred supporters with lotus scarves wrapped around their necks, is on a padyatra. Speculations are rife that Sarangi, who quit her IAS job and joined the BJP at the party president Amit Shah’s residence in New Delhi, last November, is going to be the saffron party’s Lok Sabha candidate from Bhubaneswar. Apart from the three in Odisha’s capital city, Jaydev, Jatni, Khurda and Begunia are the other assembly segments under Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency.
A few metres into the village, a group of women is waiting, curious to see Sarangi. Saying namaste with folded hands, she starts a brief conversation with them. “Jaha bhi apana manankara samasya acchhi mote kahibe,” (please let me know whatever issues you have) she tells them. Before moving ahead, she asks one of the ladies with a kid in her arms, “Pila kebe school jiba”? (When will the child go to school?). Needless to say, the women are impressed. One of them whispers, “Madam, badhia Odia kahuchhanti,” (she is speaking fluent Odia).
Minutes after Sarangi and her supporters have moved into the village, in a tea shop at the Naroda bazaar, a political discussion has ensued among some local elders. By their own admission, all of them are farmers and supporters of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD). “If she has quit her highly paid job and joined politics, then definitely she has something in her mind for the state. This time, the BJD will win the assembly seat, but she is the first choice as the MP,” says one, his eyes fixed on an Odia daily. Others nod their heads in agreement.
“People’s perception matters a lot in politics, and that’s going to help Aparajita,” says a Bhubaneswar based senior functionary of a national party (not BJP), on condition of anonymity. “Don’t forget,” he adds, “she has an enviable image, people view her as an upright, bold and decisive person.”
Sarangi’s jump into politics (I had 11 years of service, she says) has been a topic of discussion and debate in the state. Ask her, why did she quit her coveted job and join the BJP? “I believe, politics shall provide me a larger canvass to work for the people. I had the opportunity to work closely under our PM Modiji. I was deeply impressed by his working style, he is an extremely hardworking and very committed person. That was a point of inspiration for me to join politics and work for the people of my state (Odisha),” she says.
Many believe her image as an administrator is going to help her as well as the BJP better its performance in the coastal pockets. According to political experts, it’s a big political coup by the saffron party, which aims to score big in the state in the 2019 polls. “Her entry into politics is no doubt good news, no one can dismiss her image. After her arrival, even in less than two months, be it through her blogs or press meets (backed up by relevant data, facts and figures), she has taken political discourse to a new level,” observes, political commentator, Rabi Das. “This was missing in the state BJP.”
As the commissioner, Bhubaneswar municipal commission (BMC) Sarangi was credited with giving a facelift to Odisha’s capital city. The visible differences brought about by her included road landscaping, a focus on cleanliness, and more importantly, de-cluttering of public spaces by setting up vending zones. The changes were eye catching. And, tangible as well. “Thousands of shop owners in the vending zones across the city will always remember her,” says Tribikram Sarangi, an OMFED booth owner (one gets very good tea, apart from other dairy products in such booths) in Bhubaneswar’s Nayapalli locality. According to him, many shops in one particular place (vending zone), mean more footfall, so income is assured. It also protects them from the municipality bull- dozers. “She used to personally visit early in the morning and identify the site in consultation with the shop owners. She has made our lives. I will offer her a cup of coffee when madam visits here,” he adds.
The daughter of a teacher couple from Bihar, Sarangi-she is married to an Odia officer of her batch- had initiated tough measures that included crackdown on teacher absenteeism. She strengthened monitoring of various school departments and introduced uniforms for government school teachers. The reforms were appreciated across the state. Recalls an ex-headmaster, “When she was the secretary, mass education, I was at her grievances cell regarding our school matters. It was late in the evening, but many were waiting -her PA had informed that she was in a meeting, but she would meet all of us. Finally, as Sarangi walked in, she spotted an old man- a retired teacher from a far off place. On learning that he was yet to receive his pension, Sarangi, flipping through the old man’s papers, said, “Mausa (uncle) I am so sorry for this. Give me a fortnight-you wouldn’t have to come to me again, your job will be done.” And, she kept her words, adds the septuagenarian.
Anyone who has had an interaction with this 1994 batch bureaucrat during her stint in Odisha before her central deputation, where she was joint secretary, Rural development and looking after the MGNREGA, will tell you many such stories. “Her vast administrative experience and the goodwill she had earned during her tenure will be of much help to the BJP,” believes senior journalist, Prasanna Mohanty.
Sarangi, as well as her party workers, are upbeat with the response she has been receiving from the people. “In the last 50 odd days, I have visited 40 villages and 15 wards. Everywhere, people have received me with tremendous love and affection. I am humbled,” she says. “The people believe she will deliver whatever she says or promises,” puts Ashok Jena, a young entrepreneur in Bhubaneswar. “It’s time for a change, Aparajita madam has come as a breath of fresh air.”
Even, opponents agree. Though, off the record. “She is known as a performer. As Khordha collector, she has done many good things for the people of my district. Her image is going to be her trump card in the polls,” concedes an old Congress hand in Jatni in Khordha district. A young bloc level BJD leader in Jaydev assembly constituency is not ready to buy that, though. According to him, the people of the state are extremely happy with the BJD government and nothing can stand before Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s popularity. ”We will win everywhere that too by huge margins,” he claims. However, he adds, “Aparajita Sarangi is quite popular in Bhubaneswar, or for that matter, in the districts close to it.”
In her new innings, it’s still early days. Yet, she is making the right noises like a seasoned player. According to her, there is a lot of enthusiasm among the karmis (workers) at the ground level and she and her party is ready to take on the money power of the ruling party which has been there for the last 19 years and using the state budget for purchasing votes. “It’s our Manobal (will power) versus their (BJD’s) Artha bal (money power). We are very optimistic and confident of winning 120 seats (the target set by Amit Shah),” she asserts.
That, of course, time will tell. But, as a former bureaucrat, who was Sarangi’s senior in the state government puts, “Odisha needed someone like her, Aparajita has a long career ahead. She is capable, committed and very hard working. Rest assured, she will make it big in politics.”