A fallout of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) identity politics in India is that no one is kosher any more. There are Hindus and then there are real Hindus; there are Muslims and then there are good Muslims; there are Dalits (“untouchables”) and then there are Mahadalits (most backward Dalits). This relentless amoebic bifurcation is similar to a nuclear chain reaction. It goes out of control quickly.
A particular brand of nationalistic identity was used as the primary weapon in the 2014 general elections ushering in the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Everything else that followed may seem like a part of a party’s agenda. But to be fair to them, things have gone clearly out of hand and they don’t have a choice to but to continue to play the game now.
The question is how would this play out in Odisha, a state in the eastern part of India, which has seen a long spell of rule by a regional party. It is a state where identity fault lines are not as obvious as they are on the national stage. As it gears up for state elections, these questions will come to bear in the state as well as nationally.
It is no surprise that in India’s first linguistic state, the primary marker of identity has become language. India’s multitude of linguistic identities, as mentioned in an earlier column, offers resistance against rising North Indian Hindutva. But sometimes, as seen in Odisha, language can be co-opted into the Hindutva agenda.
Elites vs nationalists
The current chief minister of Odisha, Naveen Patnaik, is everything that the Indian right wing has demonized for the last four years. He heads the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), a party in his father’s name. His mother tongue, Odia, is shaky, his English and French are good; he is an intellectual and a poet and he is thoroughly Westernized. Jaqueline Kennedy was the editor of his books and a friend, The Beatles were friends too. But how could any of these be vices?
For that, we have to go back. Though identity and perception in politics became a key element after the student politics during the times when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and declared the Emergency, the watershed moment came only in 2014. Let us look at the Emergency-era leaders – Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, George Fernandez and Arun Jaitley. The first three remained rustic throughout their political careers. The rusticity became a carefully maintained part of their rooted image.
But the 2014 general elections were the turning point. An English-speaking socialite had never been equated with being a liberal and a liberal was never equated with an anti-national in India’s national discourse. There were leaders with good diction and fine English on both sides, but it was only in 2014 that they were vilified as aloof, out-of-sync with the masses, to be blamed for the state of the nation.
The current minister for petroleum and natural gas, Dharmendra Pradhan, who hails from Odisha, is seen as a chief-ministerial candidate from the BJP. Currently a member of Parliament, he has been a legislator in the state assembly but has not won an election since 2004.
Currently, he is nominated to the Rajya Sabha, upper house of the Indian Parliament, from the neighboring state of Bihar. His father was also an MP. He had the same privileged childhood as Naveen Patnaik, but he is no writer or a poet. He has not been Westernized and his English bears a heavy Odia accent. To go back to the earlier reference, his speeches have the rustic appeal of Lalu rather than the urbane polish of Arun Jaitley.
The perception battle
Perceptions in politics matter. Last year, Pradhan cultivated an image as a benefactor of Odia arts and crafts. The Odisha Parba in Delhi found sponsors in the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC), Indian Oil, GAIL, Hindustan Petroleum, Indraprastha Gas Ltd (IGL), NTPC, Bharat Petroleum, and Oil India Ltd among other oil companies, all of which report to his ministry.
The Kalinga Literary Festival found sponsors in ONGC, HP and Indian Oil. Pradhan inaugurated the event. The Odisha Literary Fest found sponsors in Oil India Limited and GAIL. Pradhan inaugurated this event as well. The Odia Media Forum and Press Club of India organized an Odia food festival. Pradhan did not inaugurate at this event, but spoke at it. Now, that is a lot of patronage of Odia culture by the national oil and gas companies.
In a series of tweets recently, Pradhan attacked the Indian National Congress party for being anti-Odia. He alleged that when the INC was in power, it always ignored Odisha. His statement that the INC wants to impeach the current chief justice of India because he is a successful Odia is not just trivializing an important matter involving a constitutional authority but also taking identity politics to its lowest denomination.
However, identity politics in Odisha is not that simple. So Pradhan could be fighting too hard for a second place with Congress. Even with the recent appointment of Niranjan Patnaik as Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president, the party has no chief-ministerial candidate. It will be hard for the INC to put up a fight without a united cadre at the grass roots and a campaigner of Modi’s stature at the national level. But as we saw in 2014, a decimated Congress fared better in the state than the mighty BJP.
In the state of Karnataka, which is going to polls in a few days, language plays a critical role. There are parallel allegations about the BJP humiliating the state’s regional pride, which is primarily based on language. The INC-led government claims that the BJP will never understand the state and its people. The INC has pitched this political battle as one of regional and linguistic pride resisting an aggressive intruder.
Will a version of this play out in Odisha? On January 24 I landed at Bhubaneswar airport and was told that a strike had been called across the state. I found a taxi driver who stoically refused to overcharge me. His windshield was cracked; it had borne the wrath of the enforcers of the strike. During the drive, he confided that as long as Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was alive, no one else would win in Odisha.
Perhaps the BJP’s planned triumphant march leading up to the 2019 polls could end up crashing into the regional and linguistic pride that has sought unity in diversity through the centuries.