Odisha: Hurting Odia pride could cost PM Modi dear

During his poll campaign, Narendra Modi missed no opportunity to embarrass the usually quiet and soft-spoken CM Naveen Patnaik

PM Modi at his Bhubaneswar roadshow (photo: @NarendraModi/X)
PM Modi at his Bhubaneswar roadshow (photo: @NarendraModi/X)

Ashutosh Mishra

As exit polls dial up the tension and leaders wait with bated breath for the EVMs to be unlocked on 4 June, certain issues are likely to linger even after the results have been announced. They would also define the post-poll relationship between the top contenders in Odisha — Biju Janata Dal (BJD) and BJP — irrespective of who wins this battle.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who led his party’s charge against the BJD — Odisha’s most successful and longest surviving regional party — must be keenly aware of the pitfalls of the kind of vitriolic campaign he conducted in the state which accounts for just 21 Lok Sabha seats. Building his entire campaign around his friend-turned-foe, chief minister Naveen Patnaik and the latter’s Man Friday, bureaucrat-turned-politician V.K. Pandian, the prime minister raised the issue of Odisha asmita (pride).

This became the focal point of his campaign and he missed no opportunity to embarrass the usually quiet and soft-spoken chief minister, repeatedly hitting him below the belt. Not only did Modi question Patnaik’s knowledge of Odia language and culture, but ridiculed him by calling upon people at his election rallies to ask the chief minister to name all the districts of the state and their headquarters without the aid of a piece of paper.

At one of these rallies in Bolangir, he cast doubts on the chief minister’s ability to name 10 villages in  Kantabanji, the second constituency that he is contesting from this time besides his traditional seat of Hinjili in Ganjam district.

Modi sought to link all these with Odia asmita even as he alleged that the state’s administration had been outsourced, in an indirect reference to Pandian whose Tamilian origin has been played up by the BJP in a bid to project him as an outsider. This despite the fact that Pandian, a 2000-batch IAS officer, speaks fluent Odia albeit with a Tamil accent, and his wife Sujata Karthikeyan, presently posted as special secretary, finance, is an Odia hailing from Kendrapara district.  

Modi’s aggressive posturing was most visible during the final phase of campaigning in the state when at a rally in Mayurbhanj, he raised the issue of the chief minister’s health, saying if voted to power, his party would constitute a committee to look into the matter as people had a right to know about their leader’s health status.

This marked the culmination of a campaign that state BJP leaders have been conducting for some time now, raising questions about an alleged deterioration in Patnaik’s health which, according to them, was being concealed from the people by a coterie led by Pandian. The implication is that Patnaik, who is pushing 77, is being held hostage by Pandian who has hijacked the state administration. This, the BJP obviously feels, has dented Odia pride.

The prime minister also sought to link Patnaik’s alleged failure to take the state forward during his uninterrupted rule of 24 years with the issue of Odia asmita, a trope which dominated the election rhetoric throughout the campaign. Modi wondered why the state had “failed” to rise despite having a vast wealth of mineral resources, and promised to transform Odisha’s economy if voted to power.

While the chief minister responded to Modi’s “concern” about his health saying his “friend” could easily have found out how he was with a simple phone call, Pandian described BJP leaders campaigning in the state as “tourists” and advised them to stop worrying about Odisha, which was in good hands, and instead focus on the development of their own states.

Significantly for the BJD, too, the core issue in this election has been Odia asmita or pride, but the party looks at it from an altogether different perspective. Party leaders argue that in sharp contrast to what BJP leaders have been saying, it is Patnaik who has restored Odia pride by ensuring all-round development of the state and, thus realising the dream of his father, legendary chief minister Biju Patnaik.

“The state has seen development in every sphere under Naveen Patnaik’s rule. Odisha is now the favourite investment destination for industrialists and boasts some of the biggest industries in the country in steel and aluminium. The state has emerged as the sports capital of the country and holds the honour of hosting two back-to-back men’s hockey World Cups. Odisha government is also the official sponsor of both the men's and women's national hockey teams. Today, every Odia is proud of his state which has found its place in the sun for the first time,” Kailash Pradhan, a staunch BJD supporter, said.   

The likes of Pradhan are also certain that the prime minister has hurt Odia pride by trying to make fun of the state's most successful chief minister, who has been repeatedly voted to power because of the good work he has done. “Such remarks about a chief minister are not expected of a leader who holds the reins of the country. Political rivalry should not descend to such a level,” Pradhan said, adding that the acrimonious campaign has embittered relations between the BJP and BJD to such an extent that any rapprochement seems unlikely in the near future.

Most political analysts, too, agree that irrespective of the outcome of the polls the BJD, which has been supporting the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre on crucial issues thus far, is unlikely to have even an informal understanding with the saffron party anymore.

“Earlier, the chief minister used to offer what his party likes to describe as issue-based support to the NDA government even as he followed an avowed policy of maintaining equi-distance from both BJP and Congress. But in the wake of the prime minister’s repeated attacks on him, he will find it extremely difficult to do so this time. If he does, he will lose the respect of his own people,” political analyst Shashi Kant Mishra said.

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