The Biju Janata Dal, led by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, last week won the Padampur byelection, dubbed a crucial poll before the 2024 elections, by a huge margin than anticipated.
While both the BJD and BJP had approached the election with innumerable public meetings and door-to-door campaigning, what made the bypoll different from the previous elections in the State was the parties’ attempts to win the trust of different castes and communities.
At the peak of the campaign, Mr. Patnaik sanctioned two valuable pieces of land at Puri and Bhubaneswar, and ₹3 crore each for the construction of guesthouses, for peasant and weaver communities having sizeable vote bases in Padampur.
Stakes were so high for the bypoll that the five-time Chief Minister and one of the country’s tallest regional leaders had apparently resorted to appeasing castes.
Head above water
In the last two decades, Mr. Patnaik has largely managed to keep his head above the water in electoral politics through a plethora of welfare measures and some smart election management.
Though the BJD candidate Barsha Singh Bariha won the poll by over 42,000 votes, political analysts believe the Odisha Chief Minister might have triggered a ferment in the State’s political landscape where social justice movement (caste-led politics) had never found echo.
In the run-up to the polls, the ruling party was said to have failed to gauge the mood of two communities — Kultas and Mehers — who comprise 15% and 4% of the Padampur population respectively.
To overcome this, in an allegedly orchestrated move, a delegation of Kulta Samaj was facilitated a meeting with Mr. Patnaik. The group extracted a promise for a piece of land at Puri exclusively for the community members. Similarly, Meher Samaj was assured of a space in Bhubaneswar.
Apart from pandering to other castes, Mr. Patnaik also gave a ticket to Ms. Bariha — a member of the Binjhal tribal community that has a sizeable population in the State.
Mr. Patnaik taking refuge behind caste politics was understandable considering that a defeat here would have ensured momentum for the main Opposition BJP ahead of the 2024 Assembly and general elections. While BJP leaders grumbled about the violation of the model code of conduct by Mr. Patnaik, the saffron party could not protest as it did not want to be seen as a spoiler when popular caste sentiments were involved.
Former Union Parliamentary Affairs Minister Srikant Jena, who champions the cause of Other Backward Classes, said Mr. Patnaik had opened a Pandora’s Box. “It is not new that a caste will have a separate community centre in the holy town of Puri. But, it is for the first time that a caste has been provided a community space by the government during the time of election. Now, every caste will seek State patronage,” Mr. Jena said.
Veteran journalist Rabi Das said, “It will be difficult for the BJD to deny other castes similar patronage that was provided to Kultas and Mehers. Opposition BJP and Congress will also not let the government off the hook easily.”
Caste has never influenced the course of elections in Odisha as it has done in other States. However, the ruling party had recognised the role of castes in electoral politics. Before panchayat and civic body elections earlier this year, the BJD had submitted a memorandum to the Centre urging it to conduct a caste-based census. Subsequently, the party provided tickets to 27% OBC candidates in the polls.
It is altogether a different matter that Biju Patnaik, father of the present Chief Minister, had not favoured the 27% reservation as per the Mandal Commission and moved the Supreme Court against its implementation.
The Opposition accused the BJD of double standards. “The Naveen Patnaik Government immediately implemented 10% reservation for Economically Weaker Sections in 2019 for admissions to medical colleges. What stopped him from doing the same on OBC reservation? When neighbouring Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh Governments raised OBC reservations to 27%, the BJD government is busy blaming the Centre and hiding behind the court’s cap on reservation,” Mr. Jena said.
With Odisha going to polls in less than 18 months, caste politics has started to resonate louder than before.