WHEN BJP PRESIDENT Amit Shah telephoned him on the afternoon of May 29th to say that he would be a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Council of Ministers, Odisha’s Balasore MP Pratap Chandra Sarangi asked if the call was for him or someone else. “I was so astonished. I thought the call was made to me my mistake.”
Shah asked him to join the meeting at the Prime Minister’s residence the same evening, before the swearing-in ceremony of the new Government at Rashtrapati Bhavan. The man who got one of the loudest applauses when he took oath, says: “I tried to be calm and not lose my mental equilibrium.”
A surprise flung in typical Modi-Shah style, he has been given charge of Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises besides Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries as Minister of State. Sarangi, 64, sees himself as an instrument in a divine plan. “I still have to study the various dimensions of my departments. There is a lot of scope to provide employment to the youth.” He interprets the spirit of Modi’s message to the ministers as “karma, karma and karma.”
In choosing Sarangi to join Government the BJP is sending multiple messages— social, political and ideological
Politics was not Sarangi’s first choice. It was not even his last. “I had tremendous dislike for politics. Till 1990, I did not even vote,” he recalls. A trip to Ayodhya in the early 1990s to join the kar sewaks in the Ramjanmabhoomi movement changed it all, bringing out in him the political hardliner who joined the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), wings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). He finally joined BJP in 2004 and won the state Assembly election from Nilgiri in Balasore District. He worked among the underprivileged, living an austere life in a bamboo and mud hut. He opened schools under the Gana Shikhsa Mandir Yojana in tribal villages of Balasore and Mayurbhanj districts. He won the Nilgiri seat again in 2009, but lost the Lok Sabha election from Balasore in 2014. This time, Sarangi, the poorest in the Modi Government with declared assets of Rs 13 lakh, defeated BJD MP and industrialist Rabindra Jena, one of the richest candidates.
But this unassuming, soft-spoken and modest social worker has another side to his political journey. As per his election affidavit, there are seven criminal charges pending against him ranging from criminal intimidation, rioting and promoting enmity between groups on grounds of religion. In 1999, Sarangi was Odisha’s state unit chief of Bajrang Dal, when Graham Staines, an Australian Christian missionary, and his two minor children were burnt alive while they slept in a station wagon set on fire by activists of the outfit in Keonjhar. Sarangi has denied involvement. He was convicted on charges of arson and damage to government property, when in 2002 a mob, led by VHP, Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini, attacked the Odisha Assembly building, demanding the disputed site in Ayodhya be handed over for construction of Ram temple.
In choosing Sarangi to join Government from among the eight MPs in Odisha, where BJP has increased its vote share from 21.9 per cent to 38.4 per cent, it is sending multiple messages— social, political and ideological. “If everyone works together with the aim of development, we can raise our nation to any level,” he says. For him, this is yet another turning point that could again change his life forever.