Benudhar Barik may be a fragile “old man,” but the 80-year-old barber in Odisha’s coastal Balasore district is excited about his debut in politics so late in life. An independent candidate in the bypoll for Balasore Sadar Assembly constituency, he says, “We must keep the faith till our last breath”.
Barik, who became popular as “Benu Mausa” (Benu uncle) during the poll campaigns in Balasore, does not even have a parlour or a salon. He has been earning his livelihood by giving people a haircut and a shave sitting under a tree by a road in the coastal town. After he filed his nomination papers to become an MLA, many thought the “penniless old man” would back out a few days later, but he did not.
After getting a campaign banner printed with his photograph and his election symbol – a kettle, Benudhar began going door to door with a few friends. He soon saw people from his village of Sobharampur joining his campaign and donating money. Then, when the poll campaign reached its peak last week, some popular theatre personalities came down on their own accord to campaign for him.
“It is Benu Mausa’s unquenchable desire to see social change happening that has made him contest these elections. He may be 80, but he is full of passion and understands socio-political issues very well. It is people like him who should win and represent the masses,” said Odia movie actress Rani Priyadarshini Sahoo who campaigned for Barik for two days.
Sahoo, who took Barik around Balasore in a Mercedes car for campaigning, also poured out tea from a kettle (Barik’s election symbol) at street corners and asked people to vote for him.
Well-known Odia theatre actress Rani Panda and actor Dama Panda also came down to Balasore to campaign for Barik. Rani Panda came twice and took Barik in a car decorated as a chariot for the campaigns.
These Odia stars added zing to Barik’s campaign even as candidates of the three main parties – BJD, BJP and Congress – carried on high-voltage campaigns led by their top leaders. The campaigns by the BJD candidate, Swarup Das, had several ministers of Odisha’s Naveen Patnaik government.
Barik has been fighting for the rights of slum dwellers in Balasore for a long time. He went on a hunger strike during the agitation for the establishment of a medical college in Balasore. He has also won a few local awards for his contributions to social movements.
“I don’t have enough money to see me through in the next few years. I am happy to be getting an opportunity to contest these elections. If I win, I will work hard to solve people’s problems. I did not expect so many well-known people from all over the state to come here to campaign for me,” said Barik, a father of two married daughters and a son who lives apart from him.
The Assembly bypoll was necessitated due to the death of the sitting BJP legislator Madan Mohan Dutt. His son, Manas Dutt, is the BJP candidate this time while the Congress has fielded Mamata Kundu.
Barik has little chance to win in this election, voting for which is being held on Tuesday. But he is full of hope and excited for being a candidate who “drew the attention of thousands of people”.
Apart from Balasore, a bypoll is also being held on the same day for Tirtol Assembly seat in Odisha’s Jagatsinghpur district.