Naveen Patnaik’s fall: How the BJP seized power in Odisha

The BJP’s victory in Odisha is more than just a numerical win; it symbolises a seismic shift in power dynamics, ending a 24-year reign under Biju Janata Dal (BJD) chief Naveen Patnaik. With 78 out of 147 assembly seats and 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP’s ascendancy underscores its growing clout and strategic prowess in navigating complex electoral terrains.

| Updated: 05 June, 2024 7:51 pm IST

NEW DELHI: In the complexities of Indian politics, few states exhibit the kaleidoscopic shifts and strategic maneuvers like Odisha, where recent electoral events have unfolded like a gripping political drama. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) meteoric rise and triumph have reshaped Odisha’s political landscape, heralding a new era of possibilities and challenges.

The BJP’s victory in Odisha is more than just a numerical win; it symbolises a seismic shift in power dynamics, ending a 24-year reign under Biju Janata Dal (BJD) chief Naveen Patnaik. With 78 out of 147 assembly seats and 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats, the BJP’s ascendancy underscores its growing clout and strategic prowess in navigating complex electoral terrains. BJD supremo and Ex Odisha chief minister, Naveen Patnaik handed over his resignation letter to Governor Raghubar Das at the Raj Bhavan on Wednesday.

Naveen Patnaik, born in Cuttack but raised in the elite corridors of Lutyens’ Delhi, seemed invincible in Odisha’s political landscape for over two decades. His family’s sprawling estate in Delhi symbolised his elite background. However, Patnaik’s long reign as Odisha’s Chief Minister has come to an unexpected end, marked by the BJP’s impressive electoral performance.

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The BJP’s victory in Odisha is not just a change in numbers; it represents a significant shift in the state’s political dynamics. For the first time in 24 years, the BJP has ended the dominance of Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), winning 78 out of 147 assembly seats and 20 out of 21 Lok Sabha seats. In contrast, the BJD managed only 51 assembly seats and failed to secure any Lok Sabha seats, highlighting a dramatic change in voter sentiment.

In the midst of this electoral spectacle, another figure loomed large: V Karthikeyan Pandian. The speculation surrounding Pandian’s influence and potential succession stirred the political pot, providing the BJP with a narrative to rally support.

Patnaik’s political journey began after his father Biju Patnaik’s death in 1997, which prompted him to return to Odisha and enter politics. Over the years, he became a formidable political force. However, the 2024 elections delivered a blow to Patnaik, cutting short his tenure by 73 days from surpassing Pawan Chamling as India’s longest-serving Chief Minister.

One of the primary factors behind this political shift is the growing anti-outsider ‘pravasi’ sentiment aimed at VK Pandian, Patnaik’s trusted aide and private secretary. A former IAS officer from Tamil Nadu, Pandian wielded considerable influence within the BJD and the state’s administration. This dominance did not sit well with the Odia populace, who saw him as an outsider. The BJP skillfully exploited this sentiment, portraying the BJD as being controlled by an unelected bureaucrat, which resonated with the voters.

The BJP’s campaign, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, focused heavily on Odia Asmita (Odia self-identity). Modi and Shah’s rallies emphasised Odisha’s pride and urged voters to reclaim their state from what they depicted as a distant and disconnected regime. Modi’s extensive campaign, which included ten rallies and numerous roadshows, alongside Shah’s vigorous campaigning, struck a chord with the electorate, especially in BJD strongholds.

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In contrast, Patnaik’s diminished visibility during the campaign was glaring. Unlike previous elections, his presence was limited, and he was often seen with Pandian by his side,  who either held a mic for the 77-year-old, kept his hand steady, or shadowed him as he waved to party workers. This void left the BJD’s campaign lackluster and less compelling. In contrast, the BJP’s carpet-bombing strategy saw leaders like Rajnath Singh, Nitin Gadkari, Himanta Biswa Sarma, and Hema Malini adding star power that the BJD sorely lacked.

The BJD’s strategy of providing tacit support to the BJP at the national level backfired spectacularly. This cozy arrangement initially helped the BJD but eventually blurred the lines between ally and opponent, eroding BJD’s distinct identity. Moreover, the BJD’s glaring lack of a succession plan became a critical Achilles’ heel. As Naveen Patnaik’s health became a focal point, the absence of a clear heir apparent created uncertainty and diminished confidence among the electorate. Rumors and speculation about Mr. Patnaik’s health further fueled the BJP’s narrative, with PM Modi even hinting at possible conspiracies behind Mr. Patnaik’s declining health.

The BJP’s strategic focus on Western Odisha, an area often perceived as neglected, played a significant role in their victory. Union Minister Dharmendra Pradhan campaigned vigorously with promises of upliftment and development for the region. His stature as a national leader provided voters with a compelling alternative to Mr. Patnaik, who clearly lacked an heir that would be accepted by everyone in the state.

The BJD’s claims throughout the campaigning period that Mr. Patnaik would comfortably secure a sixth term mirrored the NDA’s “400 paar” claim, leading to a sense of complacency within the BJD. This overconfidence was starkly evident in their campaign strategy, which lacked the urgency and rigor seen in previous elections. Meanwhile, the BJP’s relentless and energised campaign capitalised on this, resulting in a decisive victory.

The Ratnabhandar issue, revolving around the missing key of Lord Jagannath’s treasury, was another significant blow to the BJD. The BJP adeptly exploited this controversy, pitching it as a symbol of the BJD’s mismanagement and lack of respect for Odia cultural heritage.

The shocking results mean Mr. Patnaik fell 73 days short of eclipsing Pawan Chamling as the longest-serving chief minister in India. This seismic shift has left many wondering what caused this political titan to tumble. The BJP’s triumph in Odisha represents a profound change in the state’s political landscape, one that will have lasting implications for its future.

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