The comment of Bharatiya Janata Party’s Puri Lok Sabha candidate, Sambit Patra, that “Lord Jagannath is a bhakt (devotee) of Modi”, has sparked off a controversy in Odisha where LS and Assembly elections are being held simultaneously.

The BJP, which had been aggressively attacking Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal with the claim to form the next government in the State, has gone on the back foot in the aftermath of Patra’s controversial statement.

Aware of the damages his statement could cause to the electoral prospects of his party, Patra not only apologised for what he describes as a “slip of tongue”, but also observed a three-day fast as an act of penance. He published front page advertisements in many Odia newspapers apologising for his comment.

Patra’s remark, which faced criticism from various opposition parties at the national level, snowballed into a major controversy since the life and culture of the people of Odisha revolves around Lord Jagannath.

Denouncing Patra’s statement in a tweet, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said: “The Lord is the greatest Symbol of Odia Asmita (pride). Calling Mahaprabhu a bhakt of another human being is totally condemnable.”

Patra’s comment came on May 20 when PM Narendra Modi conducted a roadshow in Puri and the second phase polling was being held in five other LS seats and 35 Assembly segments in the State. The last two phases of polling for 12 LS and 84 Assembly seats are scheduled to be held on May 25 and June 1.

It is not surprising that while the BJP was running the Ram temple campaign, the BJD was highlighting the Parikrama project (corridor to facilitate smooth movement of pilgrims around the Jagannath temple) that was hailed by the common people of the State. The BJD has been blaming the BJP since its leaders had questioned the Parikrama project in the past.

In order to exploit the public sentiments around the Jagannath temple, in an indirect dig at Kartik Pandian — close aide of Patnaik and BJD leader, who hails from Tamil Nadu — PM Modi has even gone on to say at public meetings that the keys of the Ratna Bhandar (treasure trove) of the Jagannath temple had gone to the Southern State.

This also led to the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin taking exception to Modi’s remarks. “Is it not a speech that is aimed at instigating the people of Odisha against the people of Tamil Nadu, whose devotion to Lord Jagannath is immeasurable?” he questioned.

Meanwhile, slogans of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Jai Jagannath’ are renting the air as electioneering reaches its peak in the State. While the BJP is trying hard to run a high-voltage campaign led by Modi and Amit Shah to compensate the damage caused by Patra’s remarks, both Patnaik and Pandian are spearheading the BJD’s campaign to ensure a sixth consecutive victory for their party.