Innings Defeat: Odisha Outcome Sealed Naveen Patnaik's Fate

Naveen Patnaik’s long innings in politics and his uninterrupted reign over Odisha comes to an end

Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee
A Time for Change: Naveen Patnaik at a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) rally at Sambalpur, Odisha Photo: Sandipan Chatterjee

The 2024 elections will be a watershed moment in Odisha’s political history just as the 2000 elections were. In 2000, a meteor called Naveen Patnaik shot to power in the state, defeating the Congress government. At that time, the newly-formed Biju Janata Dal (BJD) headed by Patnaik had formed an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Twenty-four years later, the erstwhile ally BJP has trounced the BJD in the simultaneous elections for the Lok Sabha and the Odisha assembly ending Patnaik’s uninterrupted reign over Odisha.

Five years ago, the BJD pulled off a landslide victory—bagging 113 assembly and 12 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP had won 23 assembly and eight Lok Sabha seats.

A political greenhorn from the BJP has handed Patnaik a stunning defeat in Kantabanji where he contested apart from his traditional assembly seat of Hinjili. It was Patnaik’s first defeat in his entire political career spanning 27 years.

Undoubtedly, 24-years of Patnaik’s government carried the burden of anti-incumbency. The middle class and youngsters with smartphones had less emotional connection with Patnaik; a new generation of voters that had come up during his reign wanted paribartan (change). But a majority of people, mainly in rural areas and urban slums, had high regard for Patnaik for the people-centric welfare schemes his government had implemented. Women voters seemed to stand solidly behind Patnaik.

The emergence of one man—former IAS officer and Patnaik’s closest aide V K Pandian—made the drastic difference between the situations of 2019 and 2024. In 2019, Pandian was Patnaik’s backroom boy; in 2024, he became the BJD’s most—and only—visible leader after Patnaik. Besides, the BJD paid a big price for hobnobbing with the BJP’s top leadership in Delhi for a long time.

The BJD’s History with the BJP

The BJD and the BJP ran a coalition government in Odisha for nine years. However, just before the 2009 elections, Patnaik backed out of the alliance with the BJP following the anti-Christian riots in Kandhamal a year before. He also professed the policy of “equi-distance”—equal distance from both the political alliances headed by the Congress and the BJP.

Patnaik emerged victorious with a two-third majority while the BJP got just six seats—a loss of 26 seats from the previous election. The latter drew a blank in the Lok Sabha as against the BJD’s 14 and the Congress’ six. Nevertheless, the national party became the third political force in the state after the BJD and the Congress.

Patnaik’s government carried the burden of anti-incumbency. A new generation of voters wanted change.

The BJP’s position did not improve much in the assembly elections in 2014 though it managed to get a Lok Sabha seat. The BJD, on the other hand, swept away the remaining 20 Lok Sabha seats.

However, after the Modi government came to power at the Centre in 2014, the BJP focused on Odisha as per its “look East” strategy. Modi and other BJP leaders often visited Odisha to spread the party’s base in the state. The party launched a blistering campaign against the BJD during the 2019 elections. Almost all the cabinet ministers of the Modi government and other national party leaders came down to Odisha to launch a volatile election campaign.

Patnaik’s charisma and the BJD’s robust organisation at the booth level ensured that the BJD got 113 assembly and 12 Lok Sabha seats. The BJP’s national leaders’ efforts helped the party to become the main opposition entity in the assembly relegating the Congress to the third position. On the other hand, the Pulwama-Balakot narrative helped it to clinch eight Lok Sabha seats—an increase of seven from 2014’s tally.

Post-election, however, both the parties developed a cordial relationship, ostensibly to keep the BJP’s state unit under check. Following a phone call from Narendra Modi to Patnaik, the BJD helped the BJP in sending former IAS officer Ashwini Vaishnaw to the Rajya Sabha. Vaishnaw went on to become the railway minister.

The BJD wholeheartedly helped the BJP when the latter pushed bills in Parliament. The bonhomie between the BJP and the BJD at the top level often caused embarrassment to workers of both parties at the grassroots. The BJP, as the main opposition, found it difficult to attack the BJD on issues affecting Odisha.

Many BJD leaders blamed Pandian and Vaishnaw for facilitating the cosy relationship of top leaders. Early this year, while there was speculation about a potential alliance of both the parties, both the former IAS officers were suspected to be behind the move. Vaishnaw’s re-election to the Rajya Sabha, in the meantime, again with the BJD’s backing (“for the larger interest of the state’s railways and telecom development”) lent credence to the alliance talk.

The basis of the alliance talk was that the target of 400 Lok Sabha seats for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the 2024 elections. It was argued that such an alliance would benefit the BJP and strengthen the NDA. But the leaders and workers of both parties at the grassroots vehemently opposed this idea.


However, after a few weeks and just before the campaign began, the speculation abruptly died down and the parties prepared to fight each other in the elections.

No Friendly Fight

The BJP leaders knew they were no match for the BJD’s organisational strength. So they organised roadshows and rallies, which were attended by many central BJP leaders. Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, party president JP Nadda, union ministers and chief ministers of several BJP-ruled states visited Odisha during the campaign.

The BJD seemed less prepared despite its strong cadre base and well-oiled election machinery. The only campaigners for the party were Patnaik and Pandian. Patnaik could not address rallies frequently due to his age. His main mode of communication with people was video messages. It was up to Pandian to lead the party from the front; he was the main election strategist, ticket distributor and chief orator.


Senior leaders had no direct access to Patnaik and they had to consult Pandian for everything. Many seniors were denied tickets. They left the BJD to join the BJP.

“Several party leaders and workers often voiced their concern that Pandian addressing public meetings and rallies had a negative impact on the voters. But nobody had the courage to say it openly,” said a BJD worker. BJP leaders sensed the situation and mounted an attack on Pandian in the name of Odia “asmita” (pride). The BJP did address local issues; it came up with the promise of minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 3,100 per quintal for paddy to lure the farmers. But party leaders realised that targeting Pandian would pay better poll dividends. They accused Pandian—a “Tamilian” and “outsider”—of holding an “ailing” 77-year-old Patnaik as a hostage and calling the shots. The BJP leaders raised the issue of the missing key of the Lord Jagannath Temple, almost accusing Pandian of being responsible for it. They also attacked the BJD on issues like farm crisis, migration and rising crime.


The BJD’s responses to the BJP’s allegations were mostly defensive. Pandian, a career bureaucrat, was not equipped to address political allegations and speculation, even as the BJP managed to create a strong narrative of “an outsider” controlling the fate of Odisha and jeopardising the people’s lives. The narrative found its way to voters’ minds across the state and changed the electoral dynamics quickly.

In short, the BJP was successful in creating an “anti-Pandian wave” and reaped a bumper electoral harvest. The elections in 2024 in Odisha became a referendum on Pandian but it sealed Patnaik’s fate.

(Views expressed are personal)


(This appeared in the print as 'Innings Defeat')

Priya Ranjan Sahu is an Odisha-based senior journalist