A giant tent for the audience. An imposing stage. Flashing LED screens. College students gyrating to the latest songs. Influencers, entertainers, and dance performances. Selfies, drone shots, thumbs-up signs and faces that did not cease to smile even on a merciless summer day.

The young crowd was dressed in white t-shirts with green sleeves that had “Nua-O”, short for New Odisha, emblazoned on the chest. The caption printed on the back in Odia read “Our Odisha, Naveen Odisha”. Chants, bytes for the camera – all thanking then Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and his lieutenant, VK Pandian, who were leading the party’s campaign for a sixth continuous term in power.

Pandian, a wiry man in his late 40s, walked onto the stage set up in Odisha’s Keonjhar district. The crowd held up signs bearing his initials – VKP.

Dressed in his usual white shirt and beige trousers, Pandian read out the names of those who had studied in the district and went on to achieve success. “Our former Chief Secretary Suresh Mohapatra…Atal Krushna Khatua is a scientist with ISRO…Subhranshu Senapati played in the IPL…if you work hard and believe in yourself children, you will be very successful in life”, he lectured to the crowd of hundreds of college students.

It was the classic American capitalist myth, delivered in heavy Tamil-accented Odia – lift yourself up by your bootstraps. In other words, ask what you can do for yourself and not what your government can do for you.

To be fair, the Nua-O programmes were marketing the government’s scholarships for graduate and postgraduate students.

However, in a 2024 report by the International Labour Organization, its employment condition index ranked Odisha at 21 among 22 states evaluated for their quality and conditions of employment. The report said that the state’s graduates and postgraduates were more likely to be unemployed as against those without schooling or a primary education – at rates well above the national average.

According to the Election Commission, voters in the age group 18-29 accounted for 23% of the state’s electorate.

What went wrong with the Biju Janata Dal this election season?

It is widely accepted that Pandian’s dominance, despite being an “outsider”, was a major factor in the Biju Janata Dal government’s defeat. But one cannot ignore the impact of Odisha’s socio-economic condition as well as the regional party’s hasty and imprudent efforts to reinvent itself.

Credit: Naveen Patnaik @Naveen_Odisha/X.

Welfare governance

As recently as 2019, before the Biju Janata Dal government decided to remold the public perception of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik as Odisha’s “vikas purush”, the dominant discourse in Odisha was that he had ruined the Odia people with handouts.

The local elites – government workers, agricultural landowners, small business owners in small towns and villages as well as the educated middle-class in cities in major urban areas – disapproved of the Biju Janata Dal government for turning the labouring classes in their localities “lazy” and “entitled”.

What these groups really meant was that a slew of welfare measures implemented by the state government had alleviated the stark rural distress of the past decades and given the poor a small amount of bargaining power.

But these changes had invited taunts that “tankikia chaula” – Re 1 subsidised rice – had instigated the labouring classes to behave “uppity”. Simultaneously, Patnaik was heavily criticised for the lack of governance and development.

From 2000, the Biju Janata Dal and Bharatiya Janata had ruled Odisha in a coalition government for close to nine years. In 2009, the Biju Janata Dal formed its own government for the first time.

Around eight months before the 2009 elections, the Biju Janata Dal had implemented the Rs 2/kg subsidised rice scheme in Odisha, which earned the party and Patnaik enormous popularity.

In the run up to the 2014 elections, the party made the Rs 1/kg subsidised rice scheme the face and focus of its campaign.

A few months before the 2019 elections, the Opposition tried to organise farmers into protest groups. Dozens of farmers had died by suicide a year before after a pest attack had ruined crops in parts of western Odisha.

With its ear to the ground then, the Biju Janata Dal had wooed farmers with KALIA – a comprehensive livelihood assistance scheme for farmers, sharecroppers and landless labourers.

Thus, the party won three elections because of its laser-like focus on pro-poor, economic populism. More accurately, the common factor in these three elections was low-intensity polarisation along class lines: the more the middle-class and relatively prosperous sneered at what they called “freebies”, the more the poor voters in Odisha backed Patnaik.

Aiming to be a big tent party

When the Biju Janata Dal government won a fifth term in 2019, its focus shifted from its base voters. The party had been comfortably competing with two rudderless political parties: the BJP and Congress.

But in 2019, the ruling party was concerned to see the BJP’s state assembly vote share shoot up from 18% percent to 32.5%. With 23 assembly seats, the BJP had emerged as the principal opposition party in the state.

The Biju Janata Dal government drew up extensive plans to attract a chunk of the voters that had coalesced around the BJP. In doing so, the party almost abandoned its trademark politics of low-intensity class polarisation and tried to become a big tent party that would please everyone.

From 2019 to 2024, the Biju Janata Dal slowly decentred its pro-poor image and instead focused on becoming the party of “development” or “vikaas” – which in real terms meant the gentrification of government premises, beautification of temples, and promotion of big-ticket events, such as two Hockey World Cups and a dazzling World Odia Language Conference.

Despite an unprecedented pandemic and an economic shock to the system, the Biju Janata Dal government, in its new avatar, did not even assess how many families might have fallen back into poverty and what could be done to pull them up again. Not only did the party fail to come up with solid pro-poor policies for its 2024 campaign, it also made a terrible mistake in pleasing dominant voices rather than the silent majority.

Credit: BJP Odisha @BJP4Odisha/X.

Distortions of new ambitions

Before 2019, the Biju Janata Dal’s approach while designing schemes had been to target the most distressed population and cover as many beneficiaries as possible under that category. This approach, incidentally, would also cover a majority of the overall population. For instance, the KALIA scheme aimed to cover more than 90% of the cultivators in the state.

But the shift in focus from 2019 meant targeting influential voices in a given locality rather than the silent majority. For instance, in rural Odisha, which was the party’s fortress, the Biju Janata Dal concentrated on appeasing the dominant voices in rural areas – sarpanches, zilla parishad presidents, health workers – by significantly enhancing their remuneration.

The state government announced that a sarpanch of a panchayat would receive a salary of Rs 10,000 instead of Rs 2,350 per month, while the president of a zilla parishad would get Rs 30,000 instead of Rs 9,380.

The government failed to anticipate that having dominated in the 2022 Panchayati Raj elections and won all 30 zilla parishads, these sops were seen by the ordinary voter in villages as a reward for the party’s cadre. The discontent was quiet but deep and would extract a fatal toll on the party’s fortunes.

BJP’s quiet evolution

From 2009 to 2019, the BJP had largely echoed the disdain among Odisha’s middle class for the BJD’s welfare politics. However, by the 2024 elections, the BJP quietly flipped its rhetoric.

For instance, the party concentrated on informing voters that the subsidised rice – for which the Centre bore a lion’s share of the fiscal burden – was “Modi chaula”: rice sent by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the people of Odisha. Instead of taunting Patnaik for his pro-poor politics like before, the BJP instead projected Modi as the actual friend of the poor.

The BJP ran two parallel campaigns. One was high profile and dominated the news cycle: the party characterised Patnaik’s lieutenant, the former bureaucrat officer and Tamil Nadu-born Pandian, as an affront to “Odia asmita” – self-respect.

At the same time, the BJP quietly promised farmers a minimum support price of Rs 3,100 per quintal of paddy. It also promised poor women Rs 50,000 in vouchers through the Subhadra Yojana scheme that it promised to implement if voted to power.

Credit: BJP Odisha @BJP4Odisha/X.

There is anecdotal evidence to show that some women voters were made to believe that they would receive Rs 50,000 in hard cash. Overall, both schemes undoubtedly had a role to play in boosting the BJP’s vote share in the state elections, and it was at the cost of the Biju Janata Dal’s share of poor voters.

While the Biju Janata Dal courted young voters through song, dance, scholarships and homilies, the BJP talked about hard economics in relatable ways. “Why should our young people abandon their ageing parents and their homes to go work in other states?” the party asked. “When will distress migration end for Odias? What has the BJD done to create jobs in 25 years?”

The state government had spent hundreds of crores on making cosmetic changes to schools, bus terminals, and hospitals – a move that largely benefited contractors. But in February, the state admitted that 98,348 government posts were vacant in Odisha.

The BJP’s questions as well as its changed pitch on welfare policies cut through its opponent’s high-decibel campaign and resonated with voters a bit more than the Tamil-Odia debate on television screens and social media.

The author is a freelance journalist based in Odisha.

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