An unusual threat has Odisha’s politicians scurrying for cover and police on their toes – egg-pelting.
In the past two years, there have been 15 “egg attacks” on the vehicles of 13 leaders of the ruling Biju Janata Dal, including Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and several ministers, and two of the Bharatiya Janata Party, including Union minister Jual Oram. At least 76 people have been arrested for 14 of the attacks. In the other case, the police is still looking for the suspects, according to Patnaik’s written reply to a question by BJP legislator Dilip Ray in the last Assembly session that concluded on September 16.
Patnaik, who also heads the home ministry, stated: “The maximum of 13 egg-pelting incidents were reported in 2016, while there have been two incidents so far in 2017.” Pradip Maharathy, the state’s panchayati raj minister, has found himself at the receiving end of the eggs three times, the most of any of the 15 leaders.
About his question, Ray, a minister in the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, said in a statement to the media: “The chief minister, union and state ministers, MPs and other political leaders being attacked with eggs reflects political intolerance among parties. It also points to the poor law and order situation in the state. It is time all political parties and concerned citizens introspect about it.”
Egg-pelting as protest began in February 2015, when youth activists of the opposition Congress pelted them at Patnaik’s vehicle while he was going to a function in Bhubaneswar. The police arrested at least 18 Congress activists for the act.
Since then, the egg has become a potent weapon in Odisha’s political battles. In 2016, rising egg attacks sent the security apparatus into a tizzy. The police’s intelligence wing worked overtime to sensitise routes taken by politicians, particularly to interior regions, restricting sale of eggs by roadside stalls. Some policemen were even suspended for failing to prevent the attacks.
The threat forced ministers to keep their tours closely guarded secrets, or cancel them at the last minute. This was gold to local TV news channels, which held animated debates on the repercussions of egg-pelting on Odisha’s politics.
There was a debate within the Congress too, with several leaders, including state chief Prasad Harichandan, opposing egg-pelting by its youth members as a tool of protest. Other leaders such as Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra, who died last November, aged 52, countered that it was only a “fitting protest” against the Patnaik’s government’s “failures”. Mohapatra had a large following in the party’s youth wing.
Riled by the attacks, Biju Janata Dal workers decided to pay the “Congress hoodlums” back in the same coin. The party’s MP from Bhubaneswar Prasanna Patasani went to the extent of equating the egg attackers with terrorists and demanded that they be charged with attempt to murder.
But when the Biju Janata Dal workers did allegedly take to pelting eggs, in November 2016, their target was not a Congress leader, but state BJP secretary Lekhashri Samantsinghar. The police arrested three people for the attack. They were reported to be Biju Janata Dal workers but the spokespersons of the party distanced it from the incident.
This year, though, incidents of egg-pelting have come down drastically. The two attacks reported so far have been on the Biju Janata Dal MP Baijayant Panda, who is seen as a critic of Patnaik, and Oram. Both were attacked in Kendrapara district, a bastion of the ruling party, in March and June, respectively. Thirteen people have been arrested for pelting eggs on Oram’s vehicle, but none in the case of Panda.
Egg-pelting is a rather novel form of political protest. Before the attack on Patnaik in 2015, Odisha had not heard of such protest, nor for that matter had any other part of India. It is curious too, since throwing eggs does not carry negative cultural connotations in the manner of, say, blackening a person’s face.
Political observers feel that Congress workers, out of power for over 17 years and desperate for media attention, probably hit upon the idea of pelting eggs at their opponents just to be in the limelight. It appears to have worked, too, going by the discomfort of the ruling party.
Now, with Odisha already on campaign setting for the Assembly election in 2019, will egg-pelting get another run like last year’s?