BJP’s future in Odisha
After its huge success in the recent round of Assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is all set, based on its happy experience in Assam, to concentrate on some states which are not traditional strongholds of the party but offer great prospects. And in this list of states, Odisha, perhaps, occupies the position of primacy. This explains why the BJP has chosen Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, as the venue of its National Executive meet on April 15-16.
After all, under the Modi-phenomenon, the BJP seems to have developed a healthy base in the villages and certain urban centres of Odisha, evident from its bagging about 34 per cent of votes in local elections held last month. The party is now clearly the most important political party in the eastern state after the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD); the Congress party seems to have gone down irretrievably to the periphery in Odisha politics. This has given fresh impetus to the party’s endeavour to capture Odisha in 2019 and increase its representations to the Lok Sabha, as the state and national elections will be held simultaneously.
Personally I am very happy that a ruling party at the Centre is giving so much attention to Odisha (the absence of which has been the bane that explains most of Odisha’s present woes) today. Because though I have spent more than two-third of my life in Delhi, I have deep roots in Odisha. But then, there are some formidable challenges on the BJP’s path in Odisha, which the top leadership of the party must introspect over at Bhubaneswar.
Let it be noted at the outset that Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, son of the legendary Biju Patnaik, is not an ordinary Chief Minister. He has been ruling the state since March 5, 2000. He has not lost a single election, be it at the local (panchayat or municipal) level or at the Assembly level or at the national level for the Parliament. In fact, with the possible exception of the last local elections (which he, all told, did not lose if seen in totality), he has emerged stronger with each successive election. Though there are speculations about Naveen’s diminishing clout of late within the BJD because of his failing health, the fact remains that he continues to be its tallest leader. Secondly, though he has been in power for 17 long years, there are no serious corruption-charges against him personally; he still is perceived to be the “cleanest” leader of Odisha among the Odias, an important perception that plays an important role in Odisha politics. It may be noted that Naveen, as Chief Minister, has sacked as many as 26 of his Cabinet colleagues either on corruption charges or on moral grounds.
All told, one gets the impression that Modi or for that matter the top BJP leadership is still confused as to whether to go all out against Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. The BJD, till 2009, was an important component of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Though at the ground level the BJP activists are reportedly against reviving the alliance with the BJD, the national leadership of the BJP has never ruled out such a prospect. And now that Presidential election is due and the Modi-regime still needs some support from non-NDA parties to have its candidate to succeed Pranab Mukherjee, I doubt whether the executive-meet at Bhubaneswar will give a battle-cry against Patnaik.
As an observer of Indian politics I have argued many a time that contrary to the common perceptions, the BJP (or its previous incarnation, Jana Sangh) has always been a honest and accommodative partner in the game of alliance-politics, but this gesture of the party has rarely been reciprocated. Despite constituting the largest block in the Janata Party in 1977 elections, it had inadequate representations in Morarji Desai’s cabinet. It had an alliance with Bahujan Samaj Party once in Uttar Pradesh, but the BSP chief Mayawati stabbed the BJP. Until 2001, the BJP was the largest NDA constituent in Bihar, but the then Vajpayee-Advani leadership promoted Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (U) and made him the Chief Minister. Subsequently it so happened that the Janata Dal (U), the younger brother to the BJP in Bihar became the elder brother; the rest is now history.
I distinctly remember that in 1998 when as a representative of a major national newspaper I travelled all over Odisha to cover the national elections, Biju Patnaik was no more in the scene and all over the state people were talking of Vajpayee, not Naveen Patnaik. And yet the BJP willingly became a junior partner to the newly formed BJD. In my considered opinion, this was a big strategic blunder on the part of the BJP; it had a great chance to be Odisha’s premier political party in 1998 itself.
Viewed thus, the greatest challenge for the BJP in Odisha is to have clarity on whether to move alone or build a pre-poll alliance in 2019 with the BJD. It has to take a decision like it had in Maharashtra few years ago when it went alone in the Assembly polls. Had the alliance with the Shiva Sena been there, it would have remained the junior partner. But now the situation is such that Shiva Sena is miles behind the Shiva Sena in Maharashtra politics. This is not to suggest that going alone in Odisha is the best thing to for the BJP; my point is that the BJP should have a relook at the wisdom of maintaining the ambiguity over the possible revival of the alliance with the BJD. A clear decision is needed either this way or that way, now that 2019 is not far away.
It is instructive now to look at some of the salient features of Odisha politics. Unlike in many other states, caste has not played a determining role in Odisha, a huge factor that has helped Naveen Patnaik a great deal. In a sense, be it Mulayam’s Samajwadi party or Lalu’s Rashtriya Janata Dal, or even Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (U), each, like Naveen’s BJD, has been an ingredient of original and undivided Janata Dal. But the success of BJD, unlike in the cases of its counterparts, never depended on the exploitation of the caste factor. Broadly speaking, the leadership of Odisha politics has been invariably with the Karans, Khshatriyas and Brahmins. The factor of the OBC—the principal vote-bank of the non-Congress parties in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is little different in Odisha, as the dominant OBCs—the Khandayats—are economically and socially as good as Karanas.
Besides, unlike in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, where the OBCs resented the bigger landholdings of the upper castes (that is how the politicisation of the OBC started), in Odisha, the mutual animosities between the upper castes and the OBCs have not been that deep-rooted because of the fact that the sizes of their respective landholdings have been broadly similar. Though the three upper castes (Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Karanas) possessed more than the average-sized agricultural land holding, the Khandayats also possessed comparable quantities of land.
According to an important study, nearly one-fourth of all land holdings in Odisha are less than 0.5 hectares in size and nearly 87.7 per cent of all holdings were three hectares or less. With such small land holdings on average, there has been far less potential for political conflict to centre on the issue of agricultural land and along caste lines. It is not that some have not tried to play caste politics; late Speaker of Lok Sabha Rabi Ray (a socialist), and Congress leaders Kahnu Lenka and Shrikant Jena (now a Congress leader , but formerly with Biju Patnaik) did try to play with the OBC card but failed. In any case, their OBC politics was mainly centred on internal party rivalry – Rabi Ray Vs Biju Patnaik; Kahnu Lenka Vs JB Patnaik; and Shrikant Jena Vs Biju Patnaik.
If one leaves out the upper castes and the OBCs, then it is the SCs and STs who between them constitute about 40 per cent of Odisha’s population. The Congress has been traditionally strong with the SCs, but the STs, predominantly in the tribal Western Odisha, have invariably supported the former rulers (belonging to the erstwhile Swatantra party and then the BJP). Though most of them remain poor and exploited, most of their leaders, including the emerging ones, have been co-opted by the major parties in the state. Under the Congress, there were two tribal chief ministers, one of them (Giridhar Gamango) is now with the BJP, the other (Hemanad Biswal) with the Congress.
Against this background, Naveen Patnaik is in a formidable position. Because, as far as the upper castes, and that means the traditional middle class in concrete terms, are concerned, his image, compared to any of his rivals, is much higher. Besides, Naveen has never allowed any groupism within the ruling BJD to cross a threshold and that explains how effortlessly he sacks and appoints ministers. In contrast, going by the local papers, the BJP is a deeply divided house. One is told that many of its senior leaders are not even on talking-terms.
The second feature is that, and I know many Odisha-politicians will curse me for this, Odisha is softer than “a soft state”, the term introduced by Gunnar Myrdal in his Asian Drama to describe a general societal “indiscipline” prevalent in South Asia and by extension much of the developing world – all the various types of social indiscipline which manifest themselves by deficiencies in legislation and, in particular, law observance and enforcement, a widespread disobedience by public officials and, often, their collusion with powerful persons and groups whose conduct they should regulate. This explains why despite having the country’s richest mineral resources and a long coast line, Odisha, instead of being a modern Singapore or Malaysia, has been reduced to be one of the poorest and backward states of the country. Here the politicians will drive away a project like POSCO, which had the potentials of being the world’s largest foreign-invested project. They give an impression that industrialisation will make the people poorer as if the Odias are used to overflow of milk and honey in their day-to-day lives!
In a sense, Odisha’s politicians have failed the state. That is why we have a situation where Odisha is the poorest despite having richest resources. In my considered view, the most important reason why Odisha has remained backward has been essentially due to the poor political leadership in the state for years coupled with an unconcerned, often biased, central government. Though in last one decade or so, some really promising and immensely talented Odias have come to the Indian Parliament, it must be admitted that overall, the competence of the parliamentarians from Odisha during the last six and half decades in pressrurising or bargaining hard with the central government to promote the interests of the state has been pathetic, to speak the least. In fact, it is remarkable that the Congress, which has been in power for most of the time in independent India’s history, hardly bothered to make any Odisha parliamentarian even a cabinet minister.
The trend of central apathy to the interests of Odisha continues even under the Modi regime, though the Prime Minister misses no opportunity to highlight how he intends to make the eastern part of India as developed and prosperous as the western states. Compared to Bihar and West Bengal that have been provided special packages by the Modi-government, Odisha has been treated as “a step child”. At least, this has been the case so far. Now that the BJP intends to repeat the “Assam- example” in Odisha in 2019, hopefully things will change for better.
By Prakash Nanda