Congress’s lone MP from Odisha on food security, Aadhaar and the condition of his party

15 June 2019

In this year’s general election, out of the 21 Lok Sabha constituencies in Odisha, the Biju Janata Dal won 12 and the Bharatiya Janata Party won eight, while the Congress bagged just one seat. Saptagiri Ulaka, a 40-year-old computer engineer by training, is the Congress’s sole member of parliament and represents the state’s Koraput constituency. The Adivasi-dominated constituency falls in the state’s KBK region—Koraput-Bolangir-Kalahandi—which is considered one of the most backward in the country. The constituency is spread across the Koraput and Rayagada districts, where over 70 percent of the population is below the poverty line. This is a result, as well as a cause, of the various development and policy issues that plague the constituency, such as food insecurity, lack of education and development.

In his election campaign, Ulaka, an Adivasi, raised these issues and focused on the controversies surrounding the BJP during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first term. He hails from a family of Congress leaders—his father, Ramachandra Ulaka, was elected to the legislative assembly from Rayagada seven times and as an MP from Koraput twice; his mother, Ratnamani Ulaka, is the vice president of the women’s wing of the party in the state.

In an interview with the activists Abinash Dash Choudhury and Sweta Dash, Ulaka discussed deaths because of starvation in Odisha and the problems faced by Adivasis in his constituency. The imposition of Aadhaar to avail benefits and subsidies, he said, “is nothing but the state’s arrogance towards the poor.”

Abinash Dash Choudhury and Sweta Dash: Although Koraput was a Congress bastion since Independence, the last 10 years saw the BJD’s reign. To win Koraput, you defeated Kausalya Hikaka from the BJD, the wife of the outgoing MP, and Jayaram Pangi from the BJP, a former member of parliament of the constituency. What was your campaign centred on to win the constituency?
Saptagiri Ulaka: Koraput has been a Congress bastion mainly because of multiple grass-roots stalwarts—Ramachandra Ulaka, my father; Habibullah Khan [a nine-time member of legislative assembly of the Nabarangpur constituency]; Raghunath Patnaik [a six-time MLA from the Jeypore constituency] and Dr Giridhar Gamang [a former chief minister]—who stood as pillars and groomed the undivided Koraput district.

In 2009 and 2014, we lost because of wrong distribution of tickets. After Dr Gamang left for BJP [in 2015], there was a vacuum for a leader. I had been moving around the constituency, trying to motivate the workers, consoling them. I had resigned from Infosys in western coast of the US and came down to Koraput. My mother helped me connect with the party. During 2019 elections, the process for ticket distribution was through grass roots demand of the people. I emerged as the choice of the workers, and they gave me the ticket. Hence, our message went to the voters and they voted for me. They trusted me, of course, because I am the son of Ramachandra Ulaka, but also because I am an educated software professional who has come down to serve the people.

Abinash DC is an independent writer and activist associated with Right to Food Campaign.

Sweta Dash is a master’s student at Ambedkar University, Delhi.

Keywords: Odisha Biju Janata Dal Bharatiya Janata Party Congress Adivasi Aadhaar