Understanding the BJP’s Triumph and BJD’s Fall in Odisha

Niranjan Sahoo
Durgamadhab Mishra

The tables have turned for Naveen T Patnaik and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in Odisha. Analysts and even the diehard supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could not have imagined that the saffron party would unseat Patnaik, the formidable and popular chief minister of the eastern state since 2000. While it was expected that the BJP would drastically improve its Lok Sabha seat share in the state, largely aided by the popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, not many had thought that a comparatively weak BJP would dominate the assembly elections.

Late Tuesday, the BJD was leading in or had won 51 seats (against 112 seats won in 2019) while the BJP was past the majority mark (with 78 seats). Another interesting aspect of the results, however, is the performance of the Congress. A party that had completely folded up in the 2019 assembly elections was leading in/had won 14 seats.

The BJD’s performance in the Lok Sabha elections is much worse. While the BJP was leading in/had won 20 seats (out of 21), the BJD won none. In the 2019 elections, even at the height of Modi’s popularity, the regional behemoth won 12 seats. A noteworthy aspect of the BJP’s near sweep in the Lok Sabha polls is that it has breached nearly all the BJD strongholds with maiden victories in Bhadrak, Keonjhar, Dhenkanal, Cuttack, Kendra- para, Jagatsinghpur, Puri, and Aska. Much of the coastal fortress of the BJD has fallen to a spirited BJP campaign. More consequential for the BJD, though, is the assembly loss.

Several heavyweights such as assembly speaker Pramila Mallik, finance minister Bikram Keshari Arukha, forest and environment minister PK Amat, steel and mines minister Prafulla Mallick, science and technology minister Ashok Chandra Panda, to name a few, were trailing by large margins. An electoral tsunami has swept away one of the strongest regional parties. While the BJP failed to convert the Lok Sabha gains to assembly gains last time, this time, it has achieved a much better conversion rate despite marginally lagging behind the BJD in terms of overall vote share (39.98% against 40.18%).

What has aided the BJP’s inspiring performance in Odisha? And what went wrong with the BJD’s famed election-winning machine?

Among the many reasons, the VK Pandian factor is perhaps the most consequential one. The outsized role played by the Tamil Nadu-born IAS officer and long-time private secretary to Patnaik in the campaign (including ticket distribution and candidate selection) and day-to-day running of the state government was not taken kindly by most voters, including hardcore BJD supporters. This was visible during the campaign when many candidates openly resented his presence in their rallies and outreach activities.

This would have still been fine if his name had not been floated as Patnaik’s potential successor. This didn’t go down well with the party cadre and the core leadership, and the BJP made the most of his “out- sider” (non-native Odia) identity. In fact, the BJP’s entire top leadership, Modi down, made Odia asmita (pride) the single focus of the party’s campaign. A relentless campaign against Pandian stoked doubt even among the staunchest BJD supporters regarding Patnaik’s “fragile health” and an alleged grabbing of power by Pandian, and it worked for the BJP.

Sensing an opportunity to unseat the BJD, the BJP campaign fired on all cylinders,
including raising strong doubts about Patnaik’s ability to run the government. The BJD’s dramatic fall in its coastal bastion is proof of this. With emotions running high, even the government’s sterling record in governance, especially its remarkable welfare delivery, couldn’t stop the electoral tsunami. As a result, Patnaik’s popularity was not enough for him to win his second seat in Kantabanji.

The unprecedented verdict in Odisha is a telling reminder not to take the voters for granted. Many warned Patnaik to rein in Pandian and check his role in the party and the government, let alone project him as his political heir. Patnaik did indeed reject the contention that Pandian was his successor in the last phase of the polls, but the damage was already done.

Niranjan Sahoo is senior fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi, and Durgamadhab Mishra is editor, Odisha Pulse.

The article was first published in Hindustan Times as Pandian, pride and BJP’s path to power in Odisha on June 5,2024

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.