Religion, caste don’t count in Odisha polls

Religion, caste don’t count in Odisha polls

Odisha is considered a ‘sterile’ state, lacking political entropy. Anyone wishing to get an insight into what works in the state would be compelled to dig hard.

Odisha is considered a ‘sterile’ state, lacking political entropy. Anyone wishing to get an insight into what works in the state would be compelled to dig hard. Unlike in Bihar and UP, religion has never been a factor that decided the outcome of elections in Odisha. The Muslim population in the state is minuscule.

Nor does caste, unlike in states like Bihar, UP, Karnataka, etc. Odisha does not vote on caste lines. Why are caste and religion irrelevant in state politics?

The three most important upper castes -- Brahmins, Karanas and Kshatriyas -- have been clubbed together into the upper caste group in Odisha. The Khandayats are numerically the biggest group among all OBCs in the state. But over a period of time, the Khandayats have risen in the social strata due to access to modern education. They may be lower caste, but in class, they are on par with the upper caste. Hence, they are neither accepted by the upper castes nor by the lower castes. So, caste mobilization among Khandayats is absent. All other castes among OBCs are referred to as ‘other OBCs’. There is little differentiation among people belonging to various lower castes and so they have been grouped as Dalits. Then there are the tribal communities or Adivasis.

During the time of Ram Manohar Lohia and later even during the post-Mandal era, caste mobilization was confined to only a few districts in the state. It did not penetrate into the nerves and veins of the entire state. The leadership of caste mobilisation was in the hands of a few lower caste communities, which the vociferous upper castes resisted.

Secondly, the Khandayats were undergoing upward mobility in the social hierarchy. They were disenchanted with the whole political mobilization process since they were excluded from the Mandal-prescribed OBC list. Their plight was akin to that of the Jats in UP and Rajasthan. In the race to get on the OBC list, the Khandayats kept shifting loyalties from one political party to another in exchange for various favours promised.

The Adivasis, meanwhile, have remained aloof amidst the whole social, political and economic developments. They have traditionally been the vote bank of the Congress party, but their choices vary now. Reservations have helped the ‘upper tier Adivasis’ sustenance, but not to gain political power or dominance. They are still being oppressed at the hands of Brahmins and Karanas.

According to the 2011 Census, the Scheduled Castes constitute about 17% and the Scheduled Tribes 24% of the state’s population. While Dalits are spread over almost all districts, the upper castes are concentrated in the coastal districts and the Adivasis in Odisha’s western districts.

Politicians from the coastal regions dominate Odisha politics. Most of its chief ministers and other senior politicians have been from the coastal region. They have catered to the development of the coastal region above all else.

The western districts of Odisha like Sambalpur, Bolangir, etc., lack development, despite being mineral-rich.

Thus, political wrangling has pivoted around the issue of the western region’s neglect at the hands of politicians from the coastal regions. The regional disparities within Odisha are indeed glaring and are so deep-rooted that they have remained the most important political issue in the state. This has stalled the full force of caste politics of the sort that has taken hold in neighbouring Bihar.

Current Scenario

Bhubaneswar, the capital city, is making rapid strides to match with the other developed cities in India. Odisha is creating an infrastructure for foreign investments and inviting all the technology firms to set up their offices. This has reduced the quantum of migration from the state. But this is not adequate. The benefits of development should trickle down to other parts of the state.

The incumbent Biju Janata Dal (BJD) government is facing the dual problem of anti-incumbency and internal revolt. Since the party has been in power for 17 years now, it has developed and uses both money power and muscle power. Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik is still very popular among the people. The USP of the government is the socio-economic schemes -- for the self-help groups, women and the poor. The government provides them enough to sustain so that they don’t revolt, but it also ensures that they don’t wield power.

For any party to come to power in Odisha, it has to focus on the youth. Employment and education for the youth are the most important issues on which the next elections will be fought. People shouldn’t have to migrate to Bengaluru, Mumbai or Delhi for jobs.

Money still plays a big role, but the electorate is more aware now and looking for a change. And in both Niranjan Patnaik of Congress and Dharmendra Pradhan of BJP, they have able leaders who can match the aura of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. Can they wrest power from him? Time will tell.