Odisha continues its hockey dribble, with short corner of politics

Debabrata Mohanty

Bhubaneswar: The cities of Bhubaneswar and Rourkela, 317km apart, are deep in the throes of preparation. In Odisha’s capital, the footpath that lines the road to the Kalinga Stadium has a fresh coat of red and green, and flowers pots frame the road which has a new coat of tar. There are billboards, stylish graffiti on walls, flex posters and illuminated signboards — most with the same imagery. On one side is the photograph, with a stick in his hand is “Olly”, the Olive Ridley Turtle that is the mascot for the FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup to be held between January 13 to 29. On the other is a smiling image of Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, dressed in white, arms folded across his chest. The optics are unmistakeable.Not only will that fortnight be a celebration of the prestigious hockey competition, but also of Naveen Patnaik’s five terms as chief minister, and his bid for re-election in 2024.

In many ways, the campaign writes itself.
Odisha is Indian hockey’s biggest success story over the past five years. This will be the second straight men’s World Cup to be held in the state after the one in November-December 2018 that was won by Belgium. In the interim, the state hosted the FIH Men’s Series finals in June 2019, the Olympic hockey qualifiers in 2019, and the FIH Pro League in 2020. In 2018, Odisha spent ₹67 crore for the World Cup. This year, the proposed spending is ₹261 crores. In 2018, the state government announced a ₹100 crore sponsorship deal with Hockey India for both the men’s and women’s teams till 2023, and the government has already announced its intention to formulate a new decade-long deal with Hockey India that will run up to 2033, beyond the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.

The backing bore fruit in August 2021 when Indian men’s hockey team won the bronze medal in Tokyo Olympics, the first medal in hockey after a gap of 41 years. India last won an Olympics medal in hockey in 1980 Moscow Olympic Games. The women’s hockey team which missed the bronze medal by a whisker finished fourth, its best ever performance in Olympics. Soon after the medal win, Indian men’s team captain Manpreet Singh tweeted: “This dream won’t be possible without the encouragement and vision of Hon’ble Chief Minister of Odisha Shri Naveen Patnaik ji who has been supporting us throughout this journey – thank you so much sir from the team and I.”

Rani Rampal, who led the women’s hockey team in Tokyo Olympics also was effusive in her praise. “Our journey to the Tokyo Olympics wouldn’t have been possible without the support and guidance of the Naveen Patnaik ji. Thank you for trusting in our abilities,” she tweeted.

But outside the field, faced with a BJP that is looking to make inroads in 2024 in both the Lok Sabha and the state assembly (both are likely to happen around the same time), the development and emphasis of hockey is now central to Patnaik’s politics. On December 22, for instance, Patnaik announced that all chief ministers would be invited to watch the World Cup, and then followed up by sending ministerial representatives to Uttar Pradesh, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi to hand over personal invitation cards. “The smooth conduct of the event is a matter of prestige for not only Odisha but also the entire nation. Therefore, we should work in tandem to make the event successful,” said Patnaik.

A cradle of hockey
Odisha’s relationship with hockey dates back several decades, much before the investment of the past few years. The backward but mineral-rich Sundargarh, the district which houses Rourkela, has produced at least 61 national players — from Dilip and Ignace Tirkey to Lazarus Barla to Jyoti Sunita Kullu and Sunita Lakra. The current men’s and women’s national squads have three players from the district — Amit Rohidas, Nilam Xess and Deep Grace Ekka.

The region is known for a tournament called the Khasi cup, which started in the late 1980s, and in which villages compete against each other. Back in the day, the prize was a male goat that becomes a feast for the entire village according to Prabodh Tirkey, former captain of Indian men’s hockey team. The big push came in 1977, when Michael Kindo, a Jharkhand native who was part of the World Cup-winning Indian team from the 1975 World Cup. joined the SAIL Steel team in Rourkela and became its captain and then chief coach of SAIL hockey academy. Under his leadership, Odisha qualified for the semi-finals of the 1979 men’s hockey nationals, a feat they repeated the next year. By 1982, Peter Tirkey became the first player from the area to be picked for the national men’s junior team, and played in the junior boys World Cup. Enthused by this, the Odisha government established the state-run Panposh sports hostel near Rourkela in 1985, and seven years later, the Sports Authority of India and SAIL set up hockey academies in Sundargarh and Rourkela.

In the late 1990s, Odisha found one of Indian hockey’s biggest stars in Dilip Tirkey, also from Sundargarh, who represented India in three Olympic campaigns between 1996 and 2004, becoming the first tribal to captain the national squad in 2002. Ten years later, Tirkey entered the Rajya Sabha as a Biju Janata Dal member, and is now Hockey India president.

Political capital
For Patnaik, hosting of the World Cup twice in five years, apart from its impact on hockey across the country, will serve to combat any sense of anti-incumbency that may have seeped through the electorate in his 22years in power; as a celebration of his organisational ability; and as a symbol of Odia pride.

“He is trying his best to showcase Odisha through sports events like these. It would do great to the image of Odisha in national and international fora,” said BJD’s Lok Sabha MP Pinaki Mishra.

Ahead of the World Cup, the state government has drawn up elaborate plans to take this message of Odia pride down to the village level. The Panchayati Raj department has been entrusted with the task of setting up projectors and screens in all 6,798 gram panchayats, where images from the opening ceremony to be held in Cuttack’s Barabati stadium featuring performances from Bollywood actor Ranveer Singh and K-Pop band BlackSwan will be telecast live. Flex banners advertising the World Cup will be affixed on the outer walls of gram panchayat, panchayat samiti, and zilla parishad offices by next week. All gram panchayats have been authorised to spend up to ₹20,000 to meet these expenses, a senior official in the state government said.

There are also plans afoot to set up large LCD screens in higher educational institutions across the state during matches while colleges and universities in Rourkela, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack will hold walkathons by students.

Gyana Ranjan Swain, professor of political science at Gangadhar Meher University, Sambalpur, said hockey has become Patnaik’s way of building a larger national image. “While Biju Patnaik was a national figure in his own right, Naveen Patnaik mostly shunned the limelight. After winning five successive state elections, he wants to leave a legacy behind and there is no better way than to be the man behind Indian hockey, and the man that brought two World Cups to Odisha in succession. There is little doubt that this will create some amount of political goodwill. There is very little fault even his opponents can find with holding a sporting event,” Swain said.

Experts also believe that this campaign is an effort by the BJD to counteract any gains that the BJP might be making in Odisha’s tribal areas, particularly with their nomination of Droupadi Murmu as President of India. Even before Murmu became India’s commander-in-chief, there was evidence of BJP inroads into Sundargarh which has a 50% tribal population, and sevenassembly seats. Of these, the BJP won three seats in 2019, as well as the Sundargarh Lok Sabha seat. “By ensuring a huge promotion for a games that is played by tribals, Patnaik is sure sending out a message,” said political analyst Rabi Das.

Sports journalist Sambit Mohapatra said that the Odisha government has spent a lot of time and money on improving the state’s hockey infrastructure at the grassroots level, especially in Sundargarh. “The 17 astro-turf stadiums that were promised in Sundargarh district are nearing completion. It is the best way to become hockey powerhouses like Netherlands and Belgium,” Mohapatra said.

Apart from this, in April 2022, the sports department began a programme called “Mo School Hockey Club” in at least one school in each of the state’s 30 districts, with 24 to 30 students in every club. Matches are played every Saturday. “I can’t think of anyone who has done so much for Indian hockey as Naveen Patnaik has,” said senior BJD leader Prasanna Acharya.

The slugfest
The BJP argues that the emphasis on hockey has been overdone, and will have little political impact. “There is no natural synergy between hockey and Odia youth unlike, the bond between football and Bengal. Most youngsters in the state still follow cricket rather than hockey, and I have doubts how the Birsa Munda stadium in Rourkela will be used once the world cup ends. I hope the World Cup doesn’t just reman a vehicle to promote brand Naveen Patnaik,” said senior BJP leader Bhrigu Buxipatra.

There have also been questions raised on the expenditure on hockey at the cost of other development, with BJP Biramitrapur MLA Shankar Oram alleging that ₹90 crore from the District Mineral Fund was spent on the new hockey stadium in Rourkela. “It is a shame that the roads of mineral rich Koida region in Sundargarh are in a dilapidated condition and there is a shortage of doctors and nurses at the hospital while the DMF funds are being diverted for a sporting event,” said Oram.

“Hosting Hockey World Cup twice in a row in last five years is a proud moment for every Odia. That’s why, we welcome Naveen Babu’s step. If DMF funds have been misused we welcome CBI probe into it,” said BJD leader and Rourkela MLA Sarada Prasad Nayak.