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BJD needs to Introspect the Assembly Results | Suranjita Ray

Saturday 22 June 2024, by Suranjita Ray


The 2024 election verdict is celebrated as a victory of democracy with the revival of a strong opposition. The message of the mandate is loud and clear. It reaffirms that pluralism, secularism, and multiculturalism are important in a democracy. But this celebration should not be short-lived. The opposition alliance will have to perform its role to meet the needs and aspirations of common people who have been bold and fearless in expressing their choice.

The BJD finds itself in the opposition role after almost a quarter of a century of ruling in Odisha. It will be the strongest opposition party and Naveen Patnaik as its leader. The celebration of having a strong opposition is missing. After serving for five consecutive terms, a political win in this election would have made Naveen Patnaik the longest ruling Chief Minister. A man of his stature, which has earned him an enduring place in the state, was greeted by the entire Odisha Assembly on June 18th when he entered the house after taking the oath. Mohan Charan Majhi, the Chief Minister, and his deputies, K.V. Singh Deo and Pravati Parida, stood up to greet him. The electoral loss of an undisputed leader for more than two decades is of concern to many of us. A major concern is what went wrong with the BJD, more so why Naveen Patnaik failed to retain his popularity as a leader.
The BJP won 78 seats, while the BJD won 51 seats. Naveen Patnaik not only lost his chair as chief minister but was also defeated in the Kantabanji assembly constituency in Bolangir district. Though he won his long-held seat in Hinjli, in his home district of Ganjam, it was not an impressive margin. While many find it hard to find the reasons for the loss, there are several perceptions that underline multiple factors that contributed to the defeat of Naveen Patnaik. The electoral defeat needs to be situated in specifics of the current historical context.

The Paradox of Development

The last decade has seen Odisha as one of the fastest-growing economies, with a growth rate of 7.8 per cent compared to 7.1 per cent at all India levels in 2022-23 (Odisha Economic Survey, 2022-23). Poverty declined from 29.34 per cent in 2015-16 to 15.68 per cent in 2019-21 (India National Multidimensional Poverty: A Progress Review- 2023, NITI Aayog). The government had launched a plethora of programmes such as ‘Ama Krushi’ ‘Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana’ (RKVY), Odisha Millets Mission, Krushak Assistance for Livelihood and Income Augmentation (KALIA), Bhoomihina Agriculturist Loan and Resources Augmentation Model (BALARAM), which promised financial support to the sharecroppers and lessee cultivators to facilitate an increase in farmers income. The success stories of many flagship programmes, including the Re. 1 per kg rice scheme for the BPL, as well as SCs, STs, disabled, and beneficiaries of the Antodaya scheme since 2013, which covered 60 lakh families every month, seemed to suggest that BJD must simply be voted to power for the next 5 years. Though these were immediate relief measures, increasing corruption at the local level contributed to the failure of the schemes and programmes to achieve its targets. The dissonance between the claims of incumbents and popular perceptions was visible, leading to deficit popular credibility.

The campaign for ‘Ama Odisha, Nabin Odisha’ (Our Odisha, New Odisha) saw Odisha as a preferred destination for national and global investors. However, several studies find that the benefits of growth and prosperity have remained confined to the urban cities of the coastal region of Odisha. The dominant class, invariably from the upper caste, in the coastal region has largely hoarded the benefits of development. It is significant to understand that the districts with a high share of Scheduled Tribe (ST) population record significantly low levels of development in health, basic amenities, education, economics, and overall social well-being (Odisha Development Report, 2020). While districts in the coastal and industrial belt of north-western regions such as Khorda, Cuttack, Jagatsignhpur, Ganjam, and Puri have ranked higher in basic amenities, the south-western districts, namely Baudh, Nabarangpur, Kandhamal, Mayurbhanj, Subarnapur, and Malkanagiri have ranked much lower (ibid). The percentage of poverty is also higher for districts in the south-western region, such as Malkangiri, Koraput, Nabarangpur, Rayagada, Gajapati, Kandhamal, Kalahandi, and Nuapada.

The paradox of development has become more conspicuous today than it was in the past, as the south-western districts remain economically underdeveloped and poor. The acquisition of land for mining, dams, power plants, highways, SEZs, and other development projects made it easy to comply with the state. The increasing race by the corporate world to tap resources for increased production has created conditions of deprivation and impoverishment for the large majority, who remain disadvantaged and disempowered. The loss of productive resources, the right to livelihood, and the ecological threats have brought people directly into confrontation with the state. We saw protests and movements by the small and marginal farmers, landless, tribals, and dalits to protect the fertile land, water, forest reserves, and mineral resources against unprecedented land grabs and land acquisitions in the name of development, particularly in Chilika, Gandhamardhan, Baliapal, Gopalpur, Kashipur, Kalinganagar, Lanjigarh/Niyamgiri, Narayanpatna, and Jagatsinghpur. We have also seen how repressive the state becomes in using its force against the people protesting to protect their livelihood resources, whether it is the betel vines in Baliapal and Dhinkia, the bauxite mountains of Gandhamardhan, Kashipur, and Niyamagiri, the waters of Chilika, or the forests of Narayanpatna. The increasing coercive response of the state converted these areas into constant conflict zones.

The intensified crop loss due to experiences of drought and unseasonal rain that followed pest attack, added to indebtedness or debt trap, acute poverty and illness, alienation of land and landlessness, land transfers, and distress selling of land to the money lenders and landlords that generated and sustained conditions of deprivation and distress for the farmers. Ironically, the agrarian policies have facilitated greater mechanisation and commercialisation of agriculture. We had seen prolonged agrarian crises resulting in an increase in farmer’s suicides in particular in Sambalpur, Bolangir, and Bargarh districts between 2001 and 2017. Therefore, the growing gap between reality and perception by the leader was visible.

While Naveen Patnaik’s hard work to overcome the challenges of natural disasters, such as the increased frequency of cyclones, in particular in 1999, 2014, and 2019, and revive Odisha’s economy brought him appreciation across the world, the two-pronged strategy of the government to enhance the capability of the poor through its rights-based approach, as well as its alliance with the economically dominant class to privilege the interests of the corporate world, added to the paradoxes of development. The dominant power structure in Odisha has resulted in increasing disparities between regions, class, caste, social groups, and communities, widening the social, economic, and political cleavages. It is unfortunate that the Kalahandi, Bolangir, and Koraput (KBK) region continues to be dragged deeper into the conflicts of humanitarian catastrophe such as systemic deprivation, poverty, distress, hunger, starvation, and distress migration, leading to widening distrust between the people and the state. The naxal-hit districts, particularly in western Odisha, have also made the news headlines for the highest number of successful killings of the Maoists.

A Few Immediate Narratives for the Loss

The BJP had not only widened its base in Odisha in recent years but was also successful in mobilizing the electorate to corner the BJD. One could see the changing tide of opinion amongst the common people. The BJP has invested hard in convincing people at the ground level why Odisha remains an example of poverty and is economically underdeveloped despite being rich in mineral resources. It promised the poor and marginalized that Odisha, which is on the cusp of a long-awaited economic takeoff, would become a developed state soon after the BJP wins the election.

The most convincing campaign was to privilege an emotional narrative of boasting about Odia Asmita (identity and pride). The growing unease amongst both experienced party members of the BJD, who felt excluded, and the common people, with a former bureaucrat V.K. Pandian with Tamil Nadu roots who turned out to be the trusted aide of Naveen Patnaik, was exploited by the BJP. It was successful in fueling this uneasiness by creating a fear that the reign of power was in the hands of an outsider. This added to the further weakening of the internal structure of the BJD, as in the past some of its members had already left the party and crossed over to the BJP. These were not short-term losses but long-term ones, and they were not taken seriously for review by the BJD leader. A greater mistake was not only to ignore the grievances the party members had but also, notably, to become vocal in identifying the major contributions of Pandian during Covid-19 and towards the recent development of Odisha.

The BJP had left no stone unturned as it explored all possible emotional narratives and highlighted the issue of the missing keys of Ratna Bhandar of Shree Jagannath Temple in Puri. Though Naveen Patnaik had taken massive initiative in the Shree Mandir Parikrama project, a 75 meter long heritage corridor around the Jagannath Temple, and the Samalei project for beautification and development of Maa Samaleswari Temple in Sambalpur, which were inaugurated in January 2024, and devotees and pilgrims had opportunities for better darshan with the temples, these developments became less convincing to the local people.

Despite many guesses and predictions and the reasons being given, the BJD did not perceive the possibility of losing the election. Contesting from Kantabanji was most challenging as the BJP had been able to mobilise people in many regions of western Odisha. Situated in the western district of Bolangir, Kantabanji serves as a labour market for brick kiln operators in southern states and has symbolized dadan (distress migration), unemployment, poverty, and vulnerability to exploitation by money lenders and middlemen for decades now. Over the decade, a large number of people - around 2.5 lakhs to 3 lakhs have migrated to earn a living. While the exodus of families was at the forefront of debates in public discourse and people in this region were hopeful that Naveen Patnaik would at least address issues of sustenance of livelihood in the election campaigns and announce or promise some initiatives, they became hopeless when he simply highlighted the merits of the welfare schemes in his speech. The BJP leaders could exploit the discontent and anxiety on the ground. It was able to triumph over the dissatisfaction of people for dignity and justice. Its confidence to change the election discourse to a battle for Odia Asmita, despite being more divisive in their campaign, contributed to its electoral victory.

But the worst fear is that the BJP government will reinforce the unconstrained neoliberal agenda and market-oriented economic policies, which will contribute to increasing the social and economic inequalities, poverty, agrarian discontent, the emergence of a dominant industrial bourgeoisie and upper middle class, and increasing landlessness among the indigenous communities and informal labourers, invariably from the lower castes and ethnic tribes. The BJP is no better alternative and no guarantee of better governance.

Lessons to Learn from the Mandate

It is significant for both the ruling and opposition parties to know that not just who and what people voted for is important, but what they rejected is equally important. The results call for serious introspection. The Odisha government had failed to mitigate the sufferings of the vulnerable communities even after 24 years in power. This had created uncertainty for the ruling party, which was nervous. Though a little more nervous than in the past, it failed to cease the opportunity to be a little more serious to regain its enduring strengths. It is important for BJD to remain cognisant of its defeat and seek the opportunity not only to find faults but also to reform and revive itself. The party has to revitalize by recuperating relations with the people, who are conscious voters who hold the government accountable. Several of the issues and challenges explained above need to be adequately addressed. A greater challenge is to address the conditions that generate and perpetuate poverty and deprivation for certain social groups and communities, irrespective of the levels of economic growth and poverty decline. To challenge the huge surge in favour of the BJP, Naveen Patnaik has to engage deeply and widely with people, as they need reassurances of the right to live with dignity. As an intrinsic part of the larger processes of democratic transitions, it is important to provide space to debate the policies if people disagree. Elections and protests should not be the only forums to oppose or contest.

While party leaders are skeptical about the leadership ability of Naveen Patnaik, given his age factor, he has the potential to expand his base across the state. A formidable task before him is to build the internal strength of the party by dealing with inner party conflicts and accommodating effective suggestions. Since the domestic political mood has hardened against BJD, the pressure on the latter could only mount. The BJD, in opposition after 24 years of rule, will put the BJP under greater scrutiny. The incipient decline of the BJD can be reversible. At the moment, it needs to consolidate its strategies to fight as the strongest opposition party. Its electoral loss leaves a void.

(Author: Suranjita Ray teaches Political Science at Daulat Ram College, University of Delhi. She can be contacted at suranjitaray[at]

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