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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 24, June 15, 2024

Historic Blunder An analysis of the defeat of BJD in Odisha - a lesson for federalism, regionalism and secularism in India | Manas Behera

Saturday 15 June 2024


Elections are not only lifelines of working democracies but set the agenda for deepening democracy and narratives for inclusive development. But it is not always the same. Elections can also be used to set the narratives in negative ways sacrificing the constitutional values at the altar of political power. India has so many such examples in its electoral history from bringing communal politics to the centre stage of electoral narrative to using emotive issues to divert people’s attention from the real issues. The case of the elections in Odisha this time both to Lok sabha and Vidhan sabha is unique in many ways in post-colonial India. Biju Janata Dal under the leadership of Naveen Patanaik was invincible in electoral politics as it is in power since last 24 years. The clean image of Patanaik was the single most important factor along the well planned welfare policies targeting various sections of the population, particularly women, farmers, dalits, tribal and other deprived sections. It has a strong social base in the state in terms of caste, class and region. The networking of the party was just fortified giving it continuous success since Patanaik assumed power in 1999. Here the problem of the party starts. It seized to function as a Democratic Party killing its internal democracy whatever it had in decades. The opposition inside and outside was crushed ruthlessly weakening its democratic base and space slowly. That was the beginning of its electoral debacle.

Many observers attribute the question of Odia identity and the second most powerful centre in the party as the single most important factor of the electoral debacle of BJD which appears to be true. But there are other reasons that led to such a situation where this single cause of debacle became hegemonic. It has its chronology. Apart from the undemocratic functioning of the party and suppression of dissention, another important factor was the bureaucratisation of the governance system relegating the role of the elected representatives to the side-lines. This laid the foundation of political dissatisfaction leading to popular dissatisfaction later. In the earlier two phases of government this was helping Naveen Patnaik in his image as people believed that he is honest and clean and will not spare any corrupt leader whoever he may be, though their removal was more strategic under the coating of removing corrupt. In the last part of his tenure the process of bureaucratisation was complete and final creating a dissatisfaction that was hidden. The over centralisation of the governance process and system was a natural result of the bureaucratisation. After the Pyari Mohapatra episode the fear of dissention and revolt dominated the party and the reactions of the party leader was more power in fewer hands. This created a coterie at the top which also kept changing over the years, weakening the democratic base of the party.

The relationship of BJD with BJP was one the crucial factors deciding the fate of it and its support base. BJD emerged as a regional party in the background of the unsuccessful experiments of regional parties in Odisha. The creation of the party prevented the growth of BJP in Odisha as an alternative to congress. The dominant political space was occupied by BJD leaving little to BJP. This historical background was ignored when BJD consistently supported all the policies of BJP in centre, even though those may affect the interests of the state and the credentials of BJD as a secular party. Odia sub-nationalism, interests of Odisha, special category status all were made secondary in the bonhomie between the two ruling parties. BJD since a decade has abandoned political ideological fight against BJP giving political space to BJP. It’s a kind of political garlanding. The unconditional support to BJP on all its bills and decisions created a favourable mind-set among the cadres and supporters of BJD that led to vote transfer made easy to BJP. This political blunder is missing in the post mortem of electoral debate. Secularism is one of its foundational principles but the line of difference between the two parties has become thin. This created a support base for the BJP which came as a dividend in terms of votes in this election. Otherwise BJP would not have taken all twenty Lok Sabha seats making BJD redundant in national politics at least for now. The Biju legacy of uncompromising secularism was compromised by BJD, particularly in its last tenure.

Both the parties kept Odisha voters captive in the prison of speculations of adjustment and seat sharing. This damaged BJD more than BJP because the political narrative on Odia identity dominated the electoral battle and penetrated into the strong rural support base of BJD. Just after the end of seat sharing talks, BJP made an aggressive strategy to attack BJD, particularly the second most powerful centre in the party on the issue of Odia identity. There already has been a growing perception that the non-odia bureaucrat turned politician would be the successor of Naveen patanaik due to the functioning style of the party as well as of the government. All decisions were centralised at one place. BJP threw its prominent leaders with PM Modi leading the front. BJD could not react at the initial stage with the belief that its fort is strong enough to face the attack. It is not that BJD could not read the writing on the wall but it suffered from the syndrome of overconfidence. The campaign strategy of the BJD was not only faulty but unprecedented in the history of election campaign in the world. Only two people Naveen Pattanaik and V.K.Pandian were seen campaigning throughout the state. Other senior leaders of the party with huge experiences were almost invisible before the voters and in the meeting pendals. This only helped BJP and its platform of Odia identity. The political & ideological attack of BJP could not be countered by BJD. It was too late when BJD really countered. The damage has already been done. This issue of odia identity created cracks in the bastion of BJD vote base like farmers, women, tribal and youth. The BJD failed to take up its old issue of special category state because it has abandoned it before. Countering BJP on issues of communalism was absent. Rather BJP raised the issue of the loss of key of the Ratna Bhandar (Jewellery Store of Lord Jagannath), Distress Migration, unemployment, corruption, cheat fund etc. that connected well with the voters. There were lots of arrows in the archery of BJD to counter as BJP has many failures on these fronts in the BJP ruled states but BJD failed. It could have been only possible with a collective team.

The class and caste dynamics tilted in favour of BJP due to several reasons. The development process in last two decades has created a neo-middle class and this class has its own aspirations. But BJD could not accommodate the interests and aspirations of this class and also of the classical middle class of the state. In the absence of the congress fighting for them and giving political space, they tilted towards BJP. The middle caste and middle class had a thin line of difference in Odisha. Their political aspirations were being nurtured by BJP for some time. The issue of Odia identity in leading the state became central for them. They not only were united on this issue but were able to take the message deep into the rural areas and to the marginalised sections which were the strong components of the support base of BJD. The amendment to the Odisha Scheduled Area Transfer of Immovable Property Regulation, 1956 allowing tribal to transfer their land for non-agricultural purposes was seen by the tribal as a dilution of their protection and corporatisation of their valuable land. The tribal were largely isolated on the issue, though under pressure the government kept it on hold. BJP got an outstanding success in getting major seats in the tribal districts. Nobody in BJD, not even its tribal representatives publicly raised the issue. All these factors were working in combine laying the foundation for the victory of BJP. It is not that things happened suddenly which is almost impossible taking into account the strength, organisation & resources of BJD along with the clean image of Naveen Patnaik. But the apprehension on the grounds of non-odia man taking the reins of power only ignited the fire that spread rapidly. It’s not that BJD workers and leaders could not feel the pulse of change but a huge ego and overconfidence led to the debacle. The margin of victory or loss in majority of seats reflects the tough fight and proves that BJD still holds the ground. Congress as a political party in the state missed the bus. It behaved as if it’s different from its national party. The upper caste leadership could not use the opportunity to present it as an alternative to both BJP &BJD. It lacked vision, strategy and political mobilisation to reach to the marginalised sections of the state. It failed to take the lead in seat sharing with INDIA alliance partners in the state. The left parties had the intervening capacity in setting the tune of the electoral battle, but this time they failed miserably. Even CPI and CPI (M) had contest among themselves.

Now the new government of BJP has huge challenges before it. Despite the failures of BJD in many fronts it has set higher standards in many areas governance, welfare schemes etc. BJP needs to prove its capability above these standards, otherwise its popularity will decline first as expectations are high. There are largely new faces in BJP except a few matured experienced politicians. Time will say what kind of governance and development the state government will deliver. Employment, distress migration, agriculture, health, education, irrigation, regional balance in development, corruption, the alleged system of contractor-political nexus etc. are some of the major issues that the new government will confront.

(Author: Prof. Manas Behera, Former Head, PG Department of Pol. Sc, R.D. Women’s University, Bhubaneswar)

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