NEW DELHI – When Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new cabinet was sworn-in on Thursday, the loudest applause and cheers were reserved for a little-known, frail-looking man from Orissa, now Odisha, called Pratap Chandra Sarangi.
The 64-year old Sarangi had been virtually unknown outside Orissa, until he became a so-called social media hero this week with many BJP supporters cheering for his rags-to-riches political success and extraordinary story as BJP’s new Member of Parliament from Balasore in Orissa. However, belying his newfound social media celebrity, Sarangi has a controversial and divisive past. As a BBC report a day later pointed out, “Sarangi was the leader of the Bajrang Dal when a Hindu mob brutally killed Australian Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two children in 1999.” Indeed, Staines and his two children were burnt alive by Sarangi’s close aide and associate Dara Singh in their jeep, sending shockwaves across the world, including the West.
While everyone including the Christians saw the Bajrang Dal and Dara Singh as responsible for the horrific killings, an official inquiry incredibly found no evidence that any one group had been behind the attack. After a lengthy trial, Dara Singh and 12 others were convicted in 2003. But the high court in Orissa commuted a death sentence for Singh two years later.
It also freed 11 others who were given life terms in prison, suggesting there was not “enough evidence” to support their convictions.
BBC quoted Orissa-based journalist Sandeep Sahu as saying that “Mr Sarangi has given several interviews, including to him, in which he spoke passionately against what he called the “evil designs” of Christian missionaries who are “bent on converting the whole of India”.
Sahu said that while Sarangi had condemned the deaths of the two children in the attack on the Staines, he held fast to his views against conversions activities being carried out by Christian missionaries like Staines.
Sarangi, now a federal minister in the government led by Modi, was himself also arrested on charges of rioting, arson, assault and damaging government property after a 2002 attack on the Orissa state assembly by Hindu rightwing groups, including the Bajrang Dal.
However, as BBC notes, it is not that reputation which has taken centre-stage on social media, but pictures of his austere lifestyle.
Happy to see this Man taking oath Meet Pratap Chandra Sarangi, 64yrs,From Balasor,Orissa, BJP.
Fondly called "Odisha's Modi "
Lives in a hut. Owns a bicycle.
Has opened 100s of schools in tribal areas.Activist against liquor and corruption.Campaigned in an auto.@GauravAjagiya pic.twitter.com/v2grLCSszg
— Yagnesh Patel 🇮🇳🚩 (@yagsi_p) May 30, 2019
Huge. Pratap Chandra Sarangi takes oath as Minister of State in the Govt led by PM @narendramodi at Rashtrapati Bhawan. A simple man living under a thatched roof and now Balasore MP. Known as Odisha's Modi. Respect Sir. pic.twitter.com/6cLI7edTCp
— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) May 30, 2019
“Mr Sarangi is known for preferring to cycle through his constituency, moving from village to village to meet voters. In the state capital, Bhubaneswar, he would often be seen walking or cycling to attend sessions at the state assembly, having a bite to eat at a modest roadside restaurant or waiting for a train at the railway platform,” Sahu told BBC.
When he defeated two much richer, powerful opponents in the recently concluded general elections, it was hailed as a David v Goliath battle.
As he took oath on Thursday, his constituency burst into celebrations, with supporters setting off firecrackers and distributing sweets. Some people are even calling him “Orissa’s Modi” – a reference to the prime minister’s humble beginnings.