Just about the time when millions of devotees were about to suffer a collective heartbreak over the grim prospect of Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath and his siblings not happening this year, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court on Monday afternoon allowed the juggernaut of the three deities to roll on the Grand Road of Puri.
Reversing its June 18 order – where the court halted the yatra citing public health and citizens’ safety amid a raging coronavirus pandemic – the apex court on Monday allowed the festival minus devotees, who have always been inseparable part of its tradition since centuries, following a change in the stand of the Odisha government.
Today’s order was as dramatic as the state government’s initial stand on not letting it happen due to the coronavirus and then doing a complete volte face in the face of public outcry. On social media, the top court’s decision is being hailed as the wish of the Lord prevailing over everyone.
While hectic preparations are on to hold the Rath Yatra at Puri on June 23 without the presence of any devotees, the play of politics behind the entire event may be too glaring to miss. While the Odisha BJP unit has been uncharacteristically silent over the Rath Yatra issue, union home minister Amit Shah on Monday indicated that PM Modi nudged him to hold consultations with the Shankaracharya and the King of Puri.
“PM Narendra Modi not only understood the sentiments of devotees but also initiated consultations. Last evening, as per the instructions of the PM, I spoke to Gajapati Maharaj Ji (the king of Puri) and the respected Shankaracharya ji of Puri and sought their views on the Yatra.
“This morning, on PM’s instructions, I also spoke to the Solicitor General. It makes me, as well as crores of devotees across India happy that PM not only understood the sentiment of the devotees but also initiated consultations which ensured that the great traditions of our land are observed,” tweeted Shah in Odia.
The home minister’s tweet that his government facilitated placing the matter in front of a vacation bench of the Supreme Court is an indication of the importance that the party places on Odisha.
Though the state elections in Odisha are four years away and the panchayat polls more than one and half years away, the Naveen Patnaik government’s flip-flop over Rath Yatra gave the opportunity to BJP to make some more inroads into the mind of Odia electorate.
The party over the last few years has been unsuccessfully trying to appropriate the Jagannath culture and blend it into their overall Hindutva campaign.
Puri has been central to its overall political theme. Last year, the BJP was toying with the idea of letting Modi fight from the Puri Lok Sabha constituency but later allowed its national spokesperson Sambit Patra to contest the seat. Patra lost the seat to BJD’s lawyer-turned-politician Pinaki Mishra by a whisker.
In early February, a month before Covid-19 lockdown started, home minister Shah in a political rally in Bhubaneswar spoke how Odisha is like his second home as Lord Jagannath has kept “showering his blessings on both Gujarat and Odisha.”
Political analysts said the BJP first tested the waters last month when the ministry of home affairs allowed construction of the three chariots on Grand Road at a time when a strict national lockdown was in place that prohibited any construction activity.
“By allowing construction of the chariots, the Centre wanted to show that it never came in the way of the Rath Yatra, the biggest festival of Odisha, even during the time of a pandemic. It ensured that the BJD would never be able to accuse it of holding up the festival,” said Gyana Ranjan Swain, political science professor of Ravenshaw University in Cuttack.
Though it was expected that the Patnaik government would be able to hold the festival minus devotees, the plan began to go awry by May-end when suddenly the number of Covid-19 cases in the state saw a steep rise in numbers due to the influx of migrant workers.
From less than 15 districts by May first week, the entire state of Odisha was soon in the clutches of the pandemic by May end making things difficult for the government. The rising number of cases outside the quarantine centres too fuelled the fears of local transmission of the virus. The officials were decidedly nervous over the possibility of a full scale community transmission once lakhs of devotees thronged the temple town of Puri on the day of Rath Yatra.
So when a little-known NGO went to the Supreme Court, allegedly with some backing from sections of government seeking stay on Rath Yatra due to the pandemic, the Patnaik government played along and reeled out figures of a million devotees congregating in Puri.
With SC halting the Yatra on June 18, the BJD did not account for the massive outrage among lakhs of devotees as well as the temple priests who felt shortchanged by the government. Many felt the government could have told the apex court that it can organise the Rath Yatra the way it conducted the Snana Purnima festival, an important festival preceding the car festival, in the first week of June.
The BJP’s image as a saviour of the biggest festival of Odisha may have come unexpectedly, but it nicely fits into its grand scheme of things it has for Odisha. By helping the juggernaut to roll on June 23, the party perhaps thinks its own caravan in Odisha would get a push.