When Nihar Ranjan Beura, an IIT-Kharagpur alumnus who worked with Indian and multinational companies for decades before moving back to his home state of Odisha, decided to contest February’s panchayat elections as an independent candidate from his village in Kendrapara district, he soon realised that the management lessons he learnt in the corporate world were useless in that context.

Elections, even at the grassroots, are a risky game, and it is all the more difficult for those without party affiliation to succeed. Beura, in his early fifties, found this out when all parties ganged up against him the moment he filed his nomination in Dumuka village. This was despite the fact that he did not parachute in – he built a sizeable amount of goodwill with his work in the village over the past six years.

Though Beura was finally elected member of the panchayat samiti in Dumuka gram panchayat, a rare feat for an independent in the politically-volatile Kendrapara district, he believes that the election system in its present form only breeds corruption and does not encourage good people to enter the fray.

Samiti members are panchayati raj representatives who are supposed to make policies for the development of a panchayat samiti or block, but have little to do once they elect one of them as the block chairman. Though those aspiring to be samiti members fight the election without party symbols, political parties usually get their lower level cadres to contest the polls in order to have control over politics in the area, and over development funds.

A panchayat is a small place where everybody knows everybody, so what is the need for huge banners, posters and huge rallies, asked Beura. He added that drastic electoral reforms were needed to create a level playing field so that more honest people emerged victorious in elections.

Giving back to community

Beura is an unlikely candidate for the post of samiti member. An MTech in industrial engineering and management from IIT-Kharagpur, he worked for companies like IBM, Deloitte, HCL and Birla Tyres for over two decades. He has lived in the US and Europe, and frequently visited the Middle East and the Far East as part of his work. Given his background, he could have easily joined a political party or contested for a Lok Sabha seat, which is at the top of the hierarchy of elected representatives.

However, Beura said that the plan never was to join politics.

Stifled by his monotonous job profile and its attendant lifestyle, he found that the occasional visit to his village refreshed him. He returned to Odisha in 2010 as he wanted to do something for the community where he grew up. Beura’s mother had raised him and his sister in Dumuka village after she lost her husband and older son during a cyclone in 1967. She sold milk from four cows that she reared to eke out a living for the family.

Amidst acute poverty, Beura did well in academics and bagged scholarships, including a major one from the Kalinga Foundation set up by Odisha leader Biju Patnaik, to fund his higher education.

“I had received lots of love and affection during my formative years from the people of my area,” he said. “I just wanted to do something for my village and district that have made me what I am today.”

He earned plenty of goodwill over the next six-odd years. Though he was stationed in Bhubaneswar, where he headed a department at the KIIT University, he visited his village, 80 km away, every weekend. He opened a dairy farm on land behind his village home, and soon started counselling students who were uncertain and confused about their future.

(Photo credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu).

As his visits to the village became more frequent, so did his interventions.

Rashmi Ranjan Swain, 27, said that Beura’s interventions created positive vibes in the area and people started looking up to him for inspiration. “Nihar [Beura] sir never disappoints anyone approaching him for help and guidance,” said Swain.

During his interactions with people in the village, the topic of rural development often came up. Many villagers lamented that local politics had deteriorated. A common refrain was that panchayati raj representatives like the sarpanch, samiti members and block chairmen were just pawns of political parties that they were affiliated to and that funds worth crores of rupees meant for rural development were either wasted in mindless constructions to feed the contractor-officer nexus, or siphoned off to the coffers of powerful people.

Beura saw evidence of this during his visits to the area when he was still in the corporate world. He said that each time he visited, the village seemed to be caught in a time warp.

“If you discount superficial changes like the use of mobile phones and construction of concrete roads almost nothing has changed in villages since my school days,” said Beura. “The lot of a majority of people remains the same while basic infrastructure including education and health has declined despite a profusion of funds to the panchayati raj institutions. Educated or uneducated, youth are interested to migrate to cities for work.”

The rough and tumble of politics

Beura soon got more involved in the matters of the village. “It was during this time that people asked Nihar [Beura] to contest the rural election so that an educated person like him would keep a tab on development funds and their proper spending,” said Sushanta Kumar Jena, a friend of Beura’s from school.

Beura realised that he could have a positive impact on the lives of a larger section of people if he joined politics. He reckoned if he had to do so, why not from the grassroots?

But that was easier said than done. While campaigning, Beura was appalled by the rampant misuse of money, liquor and even intimidation during the elections.

He said that some of his school friends, who now work in the government, secretly campaigned against him as their loyalties lay with politicians. As campaigning progressed, his base of volunteers dwindled by the day.

Dumuka panchayat has around 4,000 voters. To lure voters, Beura said candidates backed by political parties spent several lakhs of rupees on feasts of mutton and liquor almost every day in the run-up to voting day. The law allows a samiti member or sarpanch to spend no more than Rs 80,000 during their election campaign.

“Some had succumbed to intimidation from rivals and some to the feast-liquor politics,” said Beura. “Two days before the election, I felt that I had no chance and resigned myself to fate.”

The Gandhi guide

Beura does not carry any ideological baggage but has read Gandhi’s writings and believes that Gandhian thoughts and economic vision are best suited for the Panchayati Raj system. He respects Gandhi’s efforts to bring about dignity of labour by the belief – encapsulated by the term “Bread Labour” – that everyone should participate in some kind of physical labour to earn a living.

Beura is convinced that dairy animals are a vital link to helping the village economy become self-reliant.

As a samiti member, Beura said that he may try to apply Gandhian thoughts to policy-making in order to help the gram sabha boost the agrarian economy of the region. “With constant engagement with people, we have to negate the perception that one joins politics to earn money,” he said. “If my work impresses a few more like me to join politics at the grassroots, I will feel I have achieved something.”