The simultaneous elections to Odisha’s Lok Sabha and state assembly seats this May-June will earn a place in history for two reasons: it marked the end of the 24-year-old uninterrupted reign of Naveen Patnaik – India’s second longest serving chief minister – and brought the first Bharatiya Janata Party government to power in the state.

But what is truly stunning is that the 2024 verdict is perhaps the only instance in Indian politics when a national political party defeated a regional political party after contesting an election on the theme of regional pride – Odia asmita, or self-respect.

For most political analysts in Odisha, this astounding result came to pass because of one major error by the ruling Biju Janata Dal. The party, with the blessings of its chief, allowed a Tamilian and former bureaucrat to become the face of the campaign and gave the BJP an extraordinary opportunity to whip up sentiments about Odia pride.

However, a case can be made that the BJP did not just benefit on account of this error by its opponent. For roughly seven years, the national party had also carefully amassed considerable legitimacy within Odisha as an organisation that apparently cares about the pride of the Odia people.

To understand why the BJP had an upper hand on the question of Odia Asmita, one must look at Odia sentiments over the last 35 years in relation to the Indian nation as an “imagined community”.

These sentiments probably started emerging after the economic reforms of the 1990s took educated Odias – particularly those in the IT service sector and few other white-collar jobs – to cities such as Bengaluru, Pune, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, and Delhi.

Having established a certain amount of financial stability, these scattered groups of aspirational Odia migrants were crestfallen to eventually make the same discovery: their identity, politics and culture were peripheral or of little consequence to the rest of the nation, especially in the places they lived.

VK Pandian with Naveen Patnaik. Credit: Biju Janata Dal @bjd_odisha/X.

There are at least two stark examples in this regard.

A recurrent and widespread complaint by educated Odias in the last 20 years describes the ignorance fellow-Indians in other states either harbour or feign about Odisha. From bitter jokes about non-Odia people asking where Bhubaneswar is located or anecdotes about being contemptuously dismissed as an etiolated version of Bengalis, educated white-collar Odias have bristled over this perceived invisibilisation and denigration.

Since as far back as the mid-1990s, these sentiments have trickled into the state and burrowed deep into the middle-class Odia psyche. Odias overwhelmingly feel that culturally, they are of little importance to the nation.

These cultural misgivings dovetailed with the uneasy acceptance of a chief minister who spoke Odia haltingly when he had to, but preferred to do it as little as possible.

Yet, it must be said that Naveen Patnaik has made some important contributions to the politics of “asmita”. During its tenure, the Biju Janata Dal secured classical language status for Odia, established an Odia University in Puri and spared no expense to host the first World Odia Language Conference.

The Biju Janata Dal government has set up infrastructure that could, in the long run, turn Odisha into the sports capital of the country. It sponsored the men and women National Hockey Teams and held two hockey world cup series in the state with great pomp and show.

Patnaik’s government built a heritage corridor around the Puri Sri Jagannath Temple and spent crores renovating and beautifying all important temples, mosques and churches across the state. It upgraded the decrepit classrooms in government schools with smartboards and other equipment.

Meanwhile, the BJP was also racking up a high score on the same board. The ascendance of Droupadi Murmu as the President of India earned the BJP an enormous amount of goodwill across the state. A new narrative began to emerge in conversations among the middle-class: Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a soft corner for Odias.

Narendra Modi with Joe Biden in front of a replica of the Konark Sun Temple’s wheel carvings, at Bharat Mandapam during the G20 summit in September 2023. Credit: White House/X.

This narrative was strengthened with the elevation of veteran Odia politician Biswa Bhushan Harichandan as the governor of two major states in succession – Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh – the long tenure of PK Mishra as principal secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office, the appointment of Shaktikanta Das as the Reserve Bank of India Governor and Girish Chandra Murmu as Lieutenant Governor of Jammu and Kashmir. Now, when aspirational Odias imagined the nation – through influential institutions and high public office – they had a place in it.

In national politics, the rise of state politicians became cause for jubilation. Dharmendra Pradhan was appointed the Union Petroleum Minister in 2014 and then education minister in 2021 and yet again in 2024. Sambit Patra and Aparajita Sarangi regularly appeared on national news as BJP national spokespersons. Senior leader Baijayant Panda was also given many important posts in the party organisation.

Many of these appointments in politics and bureaucracy were arguably not a recognition of Odias – they were based on personal loyalties and individual competencies. But to the anxiety-ridden, middle-class Odia mind, which has been burdened by perceived slights, these developments appeared to be special gestures towards the long-marginalised Odia identity.

Thus, both the Biju Janata Dal and BJP were competing for the aspirational voter and promoted the politics of Odia asmita.

But why did one succeed in convincing voters more?

The answer is that perhaps the Biju Janata Dal government’s investments in cultural politics were largely structural, systemic, and institutional. The ruling party assumed that its tangible or visible contributions would automatically trickle down to the public at large. Since it was always in power, the regional party took the easier and more overt route – highlighting its achievements mostly in news studios, speeches and government advertisements.

Meanwhile, the BJP’s engagement with the socio-cultural aspirations of Odias were people-centric and easier to communicate to the public. Since it came to power in the Centre, the BJP identified many deserving and previously unacknowledged candidates for the Padma awards. These awards built up goodwill for the party in pockets.

Simultaneously, BJP’s overarching narrative – Modi’s affection for Odisha – was inserted into casual conversations across the state by the considerable number of foot soldiers of the entire Sangh Parivar – the conglomeration of entities that support the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s Hindutva ideology.

For instance, an image of Modi showing a backdrop featuring the Konark Temple to US President Joe Biden during the G20 Summit in Delhi in September became one of the most celebrated pictures on Facebook and WhatsApp in the run up to the elections.

In the race to be the champion of Odia asmita, the Biju Janata Dal relied on big ticket projects and a ponderous style of communication. Meanwhile, using ordinary people and relying on informal means of communication, the BJP took the upper hand in launching both covert and overt narratives.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Odisha.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Odisha elections. Read the first part here.