During a roadshow in Cuttack, Amit Shah, the Union Home Minister, was asked if he wanted to send a message to Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha.

Shah’s response dripped with sarcasm. “It won’t reach him,” he said in Hindi. “I don’t speak Tamil.”

Shah’s brusque reply references the widely accepted idea that Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister of Odisha, has largely retired from public life. Instead, the government and the Biju Janata Dal is being led by V Karthikeyan Pandian, an Indian Administrative Service officer-turned-politcian.

Pandian’s rise to power is unusual given his bureaucratic career. But what is creating even more ripples in Odisha is his ethnicity: Pandian is Tamilian.

Across many states in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party is attacked on the lines of state identity. The rise of Pandian means Odisha is the only state where the boot is on the other foot: the BJP is attacking the Biju Janata Dal for not being Odia enough.

This emotive issue combined with an anti-incumbency sentiment (Patnaik has been chief minister for an astonishing 24 years) means the BJP is on the ascendance in the state of Odisha.

Pandian’s rise

Pandian started his career with the Indian Administrative Service in 2000 as part of the Punjab cadre. But he soon got that changed to Odisha, probably as a result of marrying an Odia, Sujata Rout.

He made his mark almost immediately, credited for making significant improvements in the public procurement of paddy in the district of Kalahandi, notorious for its crushing poverty. However, his career in politics, in retrospect, was set in motion by him being made collector of Ganjam, Naveen Patnaik’s ancestral home district and where his Assembly constituency is situated. In 2011, Pandian was made Patnaik’s personal secretary.

Like many Indian chief ministers, Patnaik does not rule through the traditional cabinet system, with ministers making and executing policy. Instead, he largely depends on bureaucrats. As personal secretary, Pandian soon came to head the Odia babudom, becoming more powerful than elected ministers.

Conversations with local journalists flesh out the extent of Pandian’s power. “He is the super chief minister,” a journalist with a national media organisation told Scroll. “Senior cabinet ministers do not have access to Patnaik, it is Pandian who controls access. No one can give feedback to Patnaik without Pandian being present.”

Pandian seems to have acquired this immense power at least partly due to the personal equation he enjoys with Patnaik. “Pandian takes care of Naveen Patnaik like a son,” veteran journalist Rabi Das said, calling this arrangement “extra constitutional”. “You may love him, but can that be the reason to put him above other [BJD] leaders?”

The ethnicity question

Pandian assuming so much power on the dint of his personal relationship with the chief minister would have been unusual enough. What makes it doubly so is that Pandian happens not to be an Odia. Ironically enough, his ethnicity seems to be causing more political trouble for the BJD than the undemocratic nature of his power.

The BJP has made Pandian’s Tamilness its main prong of attack, as it tries to replace the BJD as Odisha’s ruling party. On May 20, Modi attacked Pandian for allegedly spiriting of jewels from Puri’s famous Jagannath temple to Tamil Nadu. Not only did Pandian respond angrily to this accusation but the chief minister of Tamil Nadu also accused Modi of “defaming Tamil Nadu and Tamils”.

Even as it gets criticised for its ethnic line of attack in other states, the BJP’s campaign is striking a chord among many Odias, especially if they reside in cities.

A resident of Bhubaneswar, Spruha Subhankshee turned 18 just a few months back and was relaxing after writing the gruelling NEET exams for admissions to an undergraduate course in medicine. She was clear that she will not countenance a non-Odia chief minister. “There are many people in Odisha who have a lot of potential to develop the state and because they are from Odisha they know Odisha better than a non Odia,” she argued passionately. “Someone who is emotionally attached to this land will work more diligently, more passionately for this land.”

Thirty-seven-year old farmer, Rahul Mahapatra, made his point using a thought experiment. “Can an Odia become chief minister of Bengal or Tamil Nadu?” he asked.

Rahul Mahapatra

However, Odia asmita or pride has its limits. Its effect is naturally restricted in a state where more than a fifth are Adivasis, who do not have Odia as their mother tongue. Moreover, this effect fades even among native Odia speakers in rural areas. “It is the BJD that had taken the lead in promoting Odia pride and aspirations as a state party,” explained Ruben Banerjee, biographer of Naveen Patnaik. “However, it does have limited appeal since the state contains so many people who do not speak Odia themselves.”

Nevetheless, Banerjee thinks Pandian’s outsider status will be a factor in urban areas. “There is this idea of self respect,” he said. “How can a person come from outside and lecture us?”

On the ground, when Scroll spoke to voters, it found that there was indeed a divide. While Pandian’s ethnicity is a factor for urban, educated Odias, this fades even among native Odia speaker from the working class in urban as well as rural areas and among women.

Romesh Nayak drives an auto rickshaw in Bhubaneswar city. He dismisses talk of Pandian being from Tamil Nadu. “So many non Odias come from outside so why do we give them jobs here?” he asked rhetorically. “Does Odisha not have [capable] workers?”

On the contrary, Nayak was rather pleased with Pandian since he credits him for efficiently running the school scholarship programme, with his son receiving Rs 10,000 and daughter Rs 11,000 this year. “How does it matter if he’s not Odia,” he said. “At least he is doing good work.”

Romesh Nayak

The women vote

The biggest support for the BJD and, in turn, Pandian though comes from Odisha’s women. In 2001, the Patnaik government launched Mission Shakti, setting up women-only self help groups eligible for interest-free loans. The impact of this was significant, with large-scale women empowerment in rural Odisha. Since 2021, Indian Administrative Service officer Sujata Karthikeyan has headed Mission Shakti – who also happens to be Pandian’s wife.

One result of this is that women involved in Mission Shakti’s SHGs are possibly the only – though numerically significant – section of Odia’s voters who actively plump for Pandian. Unsurprisingly, the BJP has tried to counter this. At the start of May, the Election Commission removed Karthikeyan from Mission Shakti, based on a complaint from the BJP.

Fifty-one-year-old Nirupama Mohapatra from Pubasason village has been a part of Mission Shakti since 2014. Loans taken by her SHG have been used to set up a diner selling home-style Odia food as well as purchasing a machine that can make disposable plates. Pandian’s outsider status has little effect on her. In fact, just a few days before Scroll met her, she and other members of her SHG went to attend a rally by him. “They are right, he is not Odia,” she said. “But he has worked and that is what matters. We need work. [Being] Non-Odia does not matter.”

When Scroll mentioned the chief minister, Mohapatra was even more strident. “Naveen babu is the best for women,” she said, with an air of finality.

The BJD’s committed woman vote bank is a solid barrier to the BJP’s chances of ruling Odisha. To break this, the BJP has promised cash vouchers to women worth Rs 50,000 over two years. While many states now include cash transfer to women, if implemented, the BJP’s promise would be the largest in terms of per person payout.

Nirupama Mohapatra

BJD vox

How does the Biju Janata Dal rank and file deal with the fact that their party is now, de facto, headed by a Tamilian with almost no background in politics? And that his only qualification, it seems, is that he is favoured by Patnaik?

As it turns out, while BJD workers are hardly thrilled about an outsider being foisted on the party, for now, they are making little noise. Patnaik’s popularity is key to the party’s survival and the election of MPs and MLAs. And since Patnaik supports Pandian, that is enough to get BJD workers to back him.

At the BJD office in the town of Pipili, Pandian’s picture is right next to Naveen Patnaik’s on all campaign posters and billboards. Workers rattle off a list of welfare schemes when asked what their party’s campaigning on. The only time they fumble is when asked about Pandian. But they recover quickly. “What have party workers to do with Pandian?” Narayan Swain, BJD district youth president for Puri said, when asked about what the average worker thinks about a Tamilian having so much power in the party. “They work with MLAs.”

Later, he offered a more robust defence: “The BJP’s campaign has no ground impact. The people love Pandian.”

Among the BJD rank and file, however, it is clear that Pandian is not exactly popular. Sukanta Bhaula has been a grassroots BJD worker for more than two decades. But this translates into little affection for Pandian. “I will support the BJD till Naveen babu is there,” he said, when asked if he would accept Pandian as chief minister.

Sukanta Bhaula

For the BJP, this is the calculus to try and navigate. Attack Pandian even as its major obstacle still remains the image of the chief minister.

“This election is not really about the BJP – they are only gaining from anti-incumbency,” Banerjee summed up. “This is essentially a contest between Naveen’s popularity and Pandian’s unpopularity.”