Naveen Patnaik: The fall of a titan

Patnaik’s 24-year rule in Odisha as the head of the Biju Janata Dal government comes to an end as the party draws a blank in the Lok Sabha election.

Published : Jun 11, 2024 23:13 IST - 8 MINS READ

Naveen Patnaik at an election campaign for the Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly elections, in Deogarh on May 15. In the centre is V.K. Pandian.

Naveen Patnaik at an election campaign for the Lok Sabha and Odisha Assembly elections, in Deogarh on May 15. In the centre is V.K. Pandian. | Photo Credit: Sarangadhara Bishnoi/ANI

The defeat of Naveen Patnaik and his Biju Janata Dal (BJD) at the hands of the BJP in elections to both the Lok Sabha and the Odisha Assembly has been one of the most surprising outcomes this time. The seemingly invincible Patnaik, who has ruled Odisha for 24 years, was on his way to breaking Pawan Chamling’s record in Sikkim of being India’s longest serving Chief Minister, but his party was handed a shocking defeat that most political observers did not see coming. In the Assembly election, the BJP won 78 of the 147 seats, while the BJD got 51, the Congress 14, the Communist Party of India (Marxist) 1, and Independents 3. In the Lok Sabha election, the saffron party won 20 of the 21 seats, while the Congress took 1.

Although the BJD faced a challenge from the BJP, there was little doubt before the election that it would return to power in the Assembly, albeit with a fewer number of seats and a stiff fight in the Lok Sabha contest. After all, Naveen Patnaik seemed to have lost none of his personal popularity among the masses in the last 24 years. His numerous welfare schemes and outreach programmes, particularly those benefiting women, had successfully kept at bay the anti-incumbency sentiment that was bound to creep in after long years in power.

Also Read | Naveen Patnaik: The regional powerhouse

Schemes such as the Biju Swasthya Kalyan Yojana that ensures healthcare to 4 crore people; Mission Shakti with its 70 lakh women beneficiaries; the Kalia Yojana, with over 64 lakh beneficiaries among farmers; and the Madhubabu Pension Yojana for the elderly had created a huge beneficiary base that had paid rich electoral dividends to the party.

In the last three Assembly elections, the BJD secured more than 100 seats each time; and in 2019, it won 113 seats, with the BJP coming a distant second with just 23. Although the BJP’s growing political power in the State was evident in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, in which it won 8 of the 21 seats, as against 1 in 2014, the rise was attributed to the Narendra Modi wave, and the electorate’s dual way of voting—one way for the Assembly and another for the Lok Sabha.

The vote percentages in relation to the number of seats won also present an interesting picture. In the Assembly election, while the BJD got a 40.22 per cent vote share to the BJP’s 40.07 per cent, it still got 27 fewer seats than the saffron party. In the Lok Sabha, while the BJP’s vote share of 45.34 per cent won it 20 seats, the BJD, with 37.53 per cent, drew a blank. The Congress, with a vote share of just 12.52 per cent, managed to retain the Koraput seat it had won in the previous election.

Even Naveen Patnaik was not spared. The iconic leader was dealt his first electoral defeat when he lost in Kantabanji to the relatively unheralded Laxman Bag of the BJP by 16,344 votes. Though Patnaik went on to win from his traditional seat of Hinjili, it was by just 4,636 votes, the lowest margin of victory in his illustrious career.

Pandian and Odia asmita

Patnaik’s mass appeal and the popularity of his welfare schemes notwithstanding, the chink in the BJD’s armour came from the unlikeliest of places—his perceived successor V.K. Pandian, a Tamil-born ex-IAS officer, who quit the service to join the BJD in November 2023. Pandian’s swift rise up the ranks of the party not only raised eyebrows in political circles but also appeared to unsettle the people of the State. An ailing Patnaik was seen to have gradually yielded ground, and eventually the reins of the party, to Pandian, who was perceived to be acting on behalf of the Chief Minister.

Patnaik’s silence on the growing murmurs of Pandian being his successor served to validate them and gave the BJP the weapon it needed to shatter Naveen’s apparent invincibility: “Odia asmita” (Odia pride). Harping on his Tamil background, the BJP began to target Pandian, and his seemingly inexorable rise in the State’s politics was projected as an affront to Odia asmita.

Pandian’s efficiency, it was he who ensured the proper implementation of Naveen’s welfare schemes, did not escape the public, but their respect and admiration for his work did not mean he was acceptable as a Chief Minister-in-waiting. “Things have improved with Pandian in charge; but nobody forgets that he draws his power from Naveen Patnaik. He will never be accepted as the Chief Minister of the State,” a farmer in Khurda told Frontline before the elections. Moreover, Pandian’s apparently autocratic manner of running the party also alienated the old guard of the BJD. Several top leaders, MPs, and MLAs of the party defected to the BJP, voicing their dissatisfaction with Pandian’s ways.

In the elections, too, it was Pandian who was the main campaigner for the party across the State. According to the Odisha-based veteran political analyst Rabi Das, Pandian leading the campaign did further damage to the BJD.

Das said: “He is an administrator and does not speak the required political language. In West Bengal, the Trinamool Congress successfully managed to campaign against the BJP as an “outsider’s party”. The BJD could have done the same thing here, and they would have won. But the main campaigner for the BJD and the person universally believed to be the next chief ministerial candidate after Naveen was himself an “outsider”. In comparison the BJP’s campaigns were much stronger.” Pandian’s presence made Odia asmita—one of the BJD’s political catchwords—the main theme of the opposition’s campaign.

Former BJD heavyweight Pradeep Panigrahy, who joined the BJP ahead of the elections, and won the Berhampur Lok Sabha seat, told Frontline that there was a growing feeling in the State that the political space was being taken over by outsiders.

He explained: “Pandian was not acceptable to the people; and there was no democracy within the BJD, and nobody had the courage to speak about the weaknesses of the government. I did, and the people of the State realised the truth in my words. There were other issues, including those of corruption, the migration of labour, and the distress in agriculture; at the same time, the people were also seeing the leadership and work of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

The Ratna Bhandar issue

According to Panigrahy, another factor that “boomeranged” on the State government was the very issue the BJD was banking on to ensure the people’s support—the much-publicised “heritage corridor” around Puri’s Jagannath temple. Panigrahy explained: “Lord Jagannath is in the hearts of the people of the State. The renovations restricted the people’s movement and denied them proper darshan. On top of that there was the issue of the missing key to the Ratna Bhandar (the treasure chamber) inside the temple. People felt if the government cannot even protect the key to one of the most sacred things in the State, how can they continue to protect the interest of the people?”

Also Read | V.K. Pandian: Odisha’s Chief Minister-in-waiting?

The missing key to the Ratna Bhandar has been a major issue in the State for the past six years. Even Narendra Modi launched a two-pronged attack targeting the State government and Pandian during his election campaign in Odisha, saying: “People are saying the key of the Ratna Bhandar has gone to Tamil Nadu. Who sent it to Tamil Nadu?”

A party in waiting

Pandian may have been a catalyst for the BJP to come to power this time, but the saffron party has been lurking in the wings since 2017, when it took over from the Congress as the main opposition in the State after the 2017 panchayat elections. It was a known political force from 2000 to 2008 when it was a part of the State government, as an ally of the BJD. It took the party around 10 years after the alliance split up to emerge as a power to reckon with on its own steam.

BJP supporters celebrate the party’s victory in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Bhubaneswar on June 4.

BJP supporters celebrate the party’s victory in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections in Bhubaneswar on June 4. | Photo Credit: Sai Saswat Mishra/ANI

The BJP’s acceptability among the masses was further encouraged by the State government’s open bonhomie with the Union government over the past five years, and Naveen’s personal rapport with Modi. Soon after the 2019 election, the BJD supported BJP’s Ashwini Vaishnaw’s entry into the Rajya Sabha as a gesture of goodwill.

As Rabi Das pointed out: “Naveen Patnaik himself was responsible for the growth in Modi’s popularity in the State. His praise of Modi and the BJD’s constant support for the BJP’s programmes at the Centre further convinced people that they could put their faith in the saffron party.”

Patnaik’s defeat signifies the end of an era in Odisha politics, during which “Brand Odisha” became a nationwide phenomenon. Now, for the first time in his political career, Patnaik will have to sit in the opposition benches. It remains to be seen what the gentle but maverick leader can do from there. 

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