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Odisha Diary: Skepticism, Concern and Sadness as Sun Sets on Naveen Patnaik’s Government

Odisha Diary: Skepticism, Concern and Sadness as Sun Sets on Naveen Patnaik’s Government

  • Several of our house help in Bhubaneshwar voted for the popular chief minister and are lamenting his loss and lauding him for his various schemes to benefit the poor.

Earlier this month, as I arrived in Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, a new era was dawning upon the state’s political landscape. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik’s familiar smile was absent on billboards at the airport, which did not feel real. The poster advertising ‘My Pond Project’ to beautify the pond in front of my house in the Pokhariphut area of Bhubaneswar, had Naveen Patnaik’s photo blackened. 

Cuttack is my hometown. Even though I have been away for over 35 years, I take pride in this association. 

I am at a loss to imagine the absence of Patnaik at the helm after an unprecedented 24 years of rule, marking a significant power shift. Patnaik was known as a laconic but compassionate leader and a connoisseur of art, and literature among other good things in life. He belonged to an illustrious family — the son of the fierce leader Biju Patnaik, and the brother of well-known writer Gita Mehta. He created the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) party in 1997 and has since ruled the state for six terms, proudly following his illustrious father. He was loved by people of all classes for his uncorrupted personality. He is known for his independent family wealth and prosperity. People relate him and his party with the popular Sankha (conch shell) symbol.

But, this June, Patnaik’s rule ended with a defeat of his party. This momentous event has brought a paradigm shift in the future of Odisha’s politics, making the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP), the Hindu-dominant national ruling party, the winner. The BJD secured 51 seats, way behind the majority of 74, compared to 112 seats in 2019 in the 147-member Legislative Assembly. BJP gained the majority of 78 seats, and Congress won 17 seats. 

For the first time in his illustrious political career, Patnaik will now sit in the opposition.

Odisha sent 20 members of the Parliament out of 21 on the BJP ticket to the Los Sabha, a substantial contribution to the BJP’s win at the national level. The party’s victory in Odisha could not have come at a better time when it was short of 33 seats to reach the halfway mark in the Lok Sabha.

The BJP’s new slogan is Jai Jagannath instead of the popular  Jai Sri Ram — Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his party’s favorite mantra.

Odisha is predominantly an Adivasi (23%) and Dalit ( 17%) state with a history of layers of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. On June 11, Bhubaneswar was abuzz with the arrival of the stalwarts of the BJP, led by Rajnath Singh and Bhupender Yadav, for electing Mohan Majhi as the next chief minister from mineral-rich Keonjhar, with two deputy chief ministers of the state, K.V. Singh Deo from Patnagarh and Pravati Parida, first time MLA from Nimapada.  

Many experts have already ascribed several reasons for the shock defeat, such as the conduct of Patnaik’s most loyal assistant — the all-powerful IAS officer Kartikeyan Pandian (originally from Tamil Nadu). People in the state government realized that decisions are only made on the all powerful third floor of the secretariat (where Pandian held his office till he resigned just days before the election to join the BJD). According to the rumor, all the party tickets for the 2024 election were decided on the third floor. Many BJD leaders changed their party affiliation to the BJP for their personal gain to get a party ticket to contest the election and gain power and recognition. Pandian’s state tour on his iconic helicopter and his prominent election posters along with Patnaik, sidelining the BJD MLAs and ministers in policy decision-making as well as in the election campaigns, are well known.  

People told me Patnaik lost touch with people who had no access to him to share their grievances and participate in his government on the ground. They hold Pandian responsible for Patnaik’s isolation.

People I talked to in the educated and uneducated communities are skeptical about choosing the state’s chief ministership who has a strong RSS background and is a devout follower of the BJP. 

What happened in this election? Why and how did the people’s beloved BJD, led by Patnaik, lose the election?

I asked Mausi, the lady who takes care of me in Bhubaneswar. A slum dweller who voted on the Sankha, the symbol for BJD. Patnaik did a lot for people like her — from one rupee per kilo of rice to up to ten lakhs (a million) of free health insurance (Biju Swasthya Kalyan Jojana) and the process of getting an ownership deed for her little hut in the slum of Kargil Basti, snaking around the Bhubaneswar airport.

The free health insurance scheme saved her son-in-law’s life, Mausi said.  He had a near-fatal accident in December 2023. He broke his spine and was admitted to the local private hospital. Unfortunately, government hospitals are in disarray, so doctors recommend their patients to private hospitals and nursing homes as the public facilities are non-existent. Mausi is grateful that her son-in-law is alive, as she could not have afforded the exorbitant medical expenditure without the government insurance. But she is heartbroken as BJD had promised the people below the poverty line (BPL) in the slums a permanent deed to their housing. They had already received the receipt, but now, with the change of government, she is despondent. 

Similarly, my friend Prativa’s maid in Cuttack also voted for the BJD, which “gave the slum owners permanent deed to a new piece of land.”

Govinda Sankhua, my Uber driver from Bhubaneswar to Cuttack, is sad that Patnaik lost the election. He voted for him. “Naveen Patnaik will make history and will always make Odisha proud,” he told me. He is worried about the BJP in power. The party “made many promises to sell all the mining to Mumbai-based industrialists,” he said. “All the promises made during the election and money spent will be at the cost of the mines to the industrialists patronized by the BJP.” 

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According to him, the BJP’s promises were “ lofty.” He continued: “Rs 3100 per quintal paddy ( compared to Rs. 2100 by the Patnaik government), Rs. 3000 for elder pension compared to Rs. 1000; Rs. five lakhs interest-free loan for the farmers, and so on.” These are all “jumla” (fake promises), he added. He feels that this year’s election “was ten times more celebratory than a wedding. For four days, the parties wined and dined people with free-flowing meat and alcohol, and Rs. 500 rupees per person. Young people, even those below 18, were given loads of money to vote and canvass for the party.” 

People told me Patnaik lost touch with people who had no access to him to share their grievances and participate in his government on the ground. They hold Pandian responsible for Patnaik’s isolation and distance from the people and the rest of his BJD party. 

Prasanna, our cook, recalled seeing on TV how Pandian misbehaved with Patnaik publicly. The viral reels circulated by the BJP-owned media about Pandian’s misconduct made people very fearful that Patnaik was a puppet and that the Tamilian will take over the Odias.

The Muslims in Cuttack I talked to voted for Patnaik as well, but now they are afraid for their safety under the BJP government. 

I infer from my many conversations that Patnaik’s development projects are very worthwhile. In Cuttack itself, for example, I could see the beautiful brick roads for all the congested neighborhoods, the massive remodeling of the age-old SCB medical college, and the beautification of the filthy Taladanda Canal. Mission Sakti was another noteworthy project to empower women in the villages of the state. What is in the future of the state time will tell. But it is a sad ending to the illustrious career of Naveen Patnaik in Odisha. 

(Top photo,  Naveen Patnaik / Facebook)

Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity-making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.

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