Odisha Elections 2024: Patnaik’s Leadership Tested by BJP

Niranjan Sahoo
Durgamadhab Mishra

The first of the four rounds of elections in Odisha ended on May 13 (the fourth phase of the general elections) and the second round will be held today. Far from Delhi and away from the mainstream noises, elections in this coastal state assume critical significance for two reasons.

One, Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo Naveen Patnaik, who has been ruling the state for a record five terms, is facing the most critical elections of his very distinguished political career spanning three decades. Odisha, under his long tenure, has witnessed a dramatic rise- from being among the BIMARUO (laggards) to becoming what noted economist and director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) Poonam Gupta calls a “breakout state”.

But there are visible signs of anti-incumbency and clouds of doubt over his chosen successor. Second, there is an insurgent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) largely aided by Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s popularity. The state BJP leaders are relying heavily on Modi’s strong appeal to topple the BJD. What makes the BJP ambitious is the lacklustre presence of the once for- midable Congress party.

With an electorate size of 3.29 crore, the state’s 21 Lok Sabha and 147 Assembly seats are up for grabs. Although the mineral-rich state experienced huge political and economic upheavals in the 1990s culminating in embarrassing helplessness during the super cyclone in 1999-Patnaik’s long stint that began in 2000 has provided political stability and an impressive economic transformation.

A state that used to catch the national limelight often for wrong reasons, particularly with frequent hunger deaths and natural disasters, has made significant progress on most development indicators. Not only is the state producing sustained high growth under Patnaik’s more than two-decade stint, but it is also among a handful of states to have achieved a revenue-surplus status. Significantly, under the Patnaik administration, Odisha has moved from being a natural disaster vulnerable state to being one with a world-class disaster management model.

Patnaik was brought into Odisha politics in mid-1990s after the death of his father, the illus- trious Biju Patnaik, and was seen as a novice who had never lived in the state and did not know its language let alone groomed for the role thrust on him. But, within no time, he deftly picked up political skills not only to out- smart competition from his rivals and BJD kingmakers alike, he transformed the party into an election-winning machine in less than a decade. What helped him to stay on the top of political narratives for so long are his low-pro- file attitude and a non-confrontational approach with successive central governments.

Although he ended the BJD’s alliance with the BJP over communal riots in the state’s Kandha- mal district, he was not shy of building a healthy relationship with the Modi government since 2014. This pragmatism not only helped his party and the state government avoid politi- cal machinations that other Opposition-ruled states have been subjected to by the ruling dis- pensation, but he was also able to extract major benefits for the state in political bargains with the Centre. The long bonhomie could be seen in the BJD supporting many controversial bills of the Modi government in the Rajya Sabha. Importantly, this strategy also helped him to keep the state BJP leadership in check.

However, after the BJP achieved surprising success in the 2019 elections, with a record haul in the Lok Sabha (winning eight seats com- pared to one in 2014, and the vote share for the Lok Sabha jumping to 38.8% in 2019 from 32.4% in 2014), it saw a chance to further improve its previous tally. That’s the precise reason why it nipped the alliance proposal from the BJD in the bud. Most key BJP leaders including Modi, Amit Shah, and Rajnath Singh have been mak- ing frequent trips to the state apart from launching broadsides against the BJD and Patnaik.

For all these years, the BJD ran an energetic campaign on the back of strong performance and Patnaik’s famed political management skills. From constituency micro-survey to care- ful candidate selection to beat anti-incumbency, the BJD had created an enviable election model that promoted meritocracy and new ideas. It built a huge youth base and brilliantly tapped women voters through Self Help Groups (SHGs) schemes (under Mission Shakti). Come 2024, most of these tools look rusty. There are complaints of widespread abuse in the selection of candidates for Assembly and Lok Sabha tickets (inclusion of many turncoats and multiple members of the same families).

However, at the centre of the BJD’s current turmoil is the issue of outsider versus Odia ashmita (Odia pride/self-respect). These issues have picked up largely due to the phenomenal rise of VK Pan- dian, Patnaik’s former private sec- retary and someone who has been calling the shots in government and the party. With speculation growing over him becoming Patnaik’s political successor, this Tamil-Nadu-born IAS officer has hugely polarised the election and state politics.

In fact, much of the Opposition’s core is not about the government’s performances all these years, but over the issue of an outsider playing an outsized role (with even Modi calling for protecting Odisha from the outsider) while at the same time painting Patnaik as a helpless patriarch. The Opposition’s strong and vitriolic attacks on Odia ashmita and Pandian’s near control of the party and its campaigns have not gone down well with core supporters and can- didates. While Patnaik and senior leaders are putting up a spirited defence and appealing to supporters not to get swayed by the criticism, there are palpable anxieties in the BJD camp.

The 2024 elections outcome has clear ramifi- cations for Patnaik’s 24-year legacy and the sur- vival of the BJD as a strong regional outfit. A major hope for the BJD is Patnaik’s continued goodwill among voters and the BJP’s lack of a chief ministerial face who can match Patnaik’s stature.

Even though the Modi factor and the BJP’s energetic campaign are likely to help the party to improve its existing tally in the Lok Sabha, winning the Assembly notwithstanding the Pandian factor would still be a tall order. This is because of split voting-the same voters who vote for the BJP in Lok Sabha are likely to vote for the BJD in assembly seats. The proof is that while the BJP secured a record eight Lok Sabha seats last time, when it came to the Assembly, it won just 23.

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 In Odisha, Visible Progress up Against Intangible Pride on May 20, 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 Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.