Opinion: 'Odia identity', 'Odia Hindu pride'… how BJP broke Naveen Patnaik's magic in Odisha

Ananya Shroff
7 Min Read
Opinion: 'Odia identity', 'Odia Hindu pride'… how BJP broke Naveen Patnaik's magic in Odisha

Author: Pinky Thi
After the Lok Sabha election results were announced on June 4, Modi began his victory speech with the slogan 'Jai Jagannath', which drowned out the crowd's chants of 'Jai Shri Ram'. Modi was celebrating his party's big win in the Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Odisha. The BJP won 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats in the state, gaining 12 new seats and completely ousting the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) from Parliament. The BJP also won a majority in the assembly by winning 78 of the 147 seats. It ousted Odisha's longest-serving chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who had run the state for nearly 25 years. On Tuesday, the party elected four-time MLA and tribal leader Mohan Charan Majhi as the state's new chief minister.

Though the BJD's defeat may have been partly a result of anti-incumbency sentiment, it is the BJD that paved the way for the BJP's grand arrival in Odisha.

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The rise of BJP was due to BJD
Patnaik consolidated a strong regional movement that had long left Odisha out of the national narrative. His dream of a glorious Odisha had Hindu identity at the forefront. The BJD spent Rs 800 crore on a pilgrimage corridor to the Jagannath temple in Puri.

But this argument of 'Odisha for Hindu Odias' has prepared voters for the dominance of the BJP and its political Hindutva. In 2024, the party challenges the BJD to decide who best represents and best fits the state's 'pure' Hindu identity.

Calling Patnaik a weak leader, Modi questioned his health and promised to form a committee to look into it. Naveen Patnaik is four years older than Modi. Using one of his videos during the election campaign, Modi also targeted his close aide Pandian. Patnaik's closest confidant, Tamil Nadu-born former IAS officer VK Pandian, was accused of being the chief minister's puppet and a Tamil infiltrator. Pandian was projected as an 'outsider' and a political fraud trying to steal Odisha's wealth.

The Election Commission transferred Pandian's wife Sujatha Karthikeyan, a bureaucrat. Sujatha Karthikeyan was the spearhead of Mission Shakti and played a key role in bringing women into the BJD through women's self-help groups, healthcare and increasing reservation for women in panchayat and Lok Sabha seats.

The BJD's success among women did not help in the battle for political Hindutva this year. The BJP, using the slogan of 'Odia Hindu Asmita', defeated Patnaik on his own turf.

BJP's penetration among tribals
The BJD’s reliance on upper caste Hindus backfired. Scheduled castes and tribes make up 40% of Odisha’s population, while other backward castes (OBCs) also make up 40%. The BJP made rapid inroads across the state by bringing tribal communities into the Hindutva fold, made easier by Patnaik’s ‘Odia identity’ inadvertently fanning Hindu pride. Most of the tribal votes went to the BJP, including those from Mayurbhanj district (Draupadi Murmu’s birthplace). Draupadi Murmu, a tribal woman from Mayurbhanj, gained international fame by becoming president two years ago.

Adivasi-Dalit protests
The Hinduisation of Odia tribals has pitted them against Dalits, who have been converted by Christian missionaries since the 19th century. There have been several incidents of religious violence since 2008. In 2008, there were riots against Christian Dalits after the murder of a VHP leader in Kandhamal. For the BJP, the tribal-Dalit divide was a winning strategy: tribals make up 23% of the population, while Dalits are only 17%.

BJD's unbalanced development model
Patnaik's past success was largely focused on developing Odisha as one of the country's fastest-growing economies, attracting foreign investment, and exploiting natural resources.

Although the promotion of Odisha as an ecotourism destination increased its prominence as an upper-class tourist destination at the national level, Patnaik's vision of economic development was largely dependent on exploitation of resources by big capitalists.

The BJD claimed to be a party of the poor, but economic success dispossessed Adivasis and Dalits of their land. The infamous Vedanta displacement, the forced removal of the Dongria Kondhs from the areas around their sacred mountain Niyamgiri, is one example.

Tribal residents in Sukinda, a mineral-rich town in Jajpur district, voted against the BJD for not raising the issue of illegal mining. Patnaik's administration did not stop illegal mining, contaminating the town's groundwater. Even though investments are increasing, malnutrition remains a chronic problem in the region. Tribals still migrate for daily wage labour. Even ecotourism has proved to be resource exploitation rather than conservation, with tribal communities deprived of its benefits.

Challenges for BJP
It remains to be seen whether the situation of tribals in Odisha will improve under BJP rule. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP has changed key laws protecting tribal autonomy and access to forests. Activists allege that the BJP does not respect tribal rights and has targeted tribal Christians.

Strategically promoting tribal leaders like the woman Santhal leader Draupadi Murmu and pitting them against Christian and Muslim minorities by portraying tribals as 'ancient Hindus' has successfully established the BJP as the 'tribal party' of the state. Majhi, the first BJP chief minister of Odisha, comes from the Santhal community. He belongs to the same tribe as the President of India and hails from Keonjhar district, an important mineral mining district.

To stop the destruction of Odisha’s ecology and protect its minorities, a common Dalit-Bahujan-Adivasi platform must work against the rapid deforestation driven by the region’s rapidly growing resource-exploiting economy.

,(The author is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Smith College, USA. This is a Hindi translation of her original article published in 'Times of India'.)

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