With BJP’s steady rise in Odisha, CM Patnaik turns to religion, culture

ByDebabrata Mohanty
Mar 17, 2021 04:45 PM IST

Since 2019, the chief minister’s politics has evolved to keep pace with the BJP’s ambitions. His focus on religion and culture is seen to be part of his attempt to keep the BJP’s ploy of painting opponents as insensitive to Hindu aspirations in check

On February 27, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik tabled a resolution in the state assembly seeking the support of the House for early completion of the 3200 crore Jagannath Heritage Corridor project. He called Lord Jagannath the symbol of Odiya esteem and pride.

Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. (HT archive)
Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. (HT archive)

“The greatest identity of Odiya community is Lord Jagannath. Our history, culture, tradition, and belief system are all centered around the Almighty. Visiting the Jagannath Temple once in a lifetime and getting a glimpse of the Lord is the only prayer of millions of devotees. All devotees, who come to the Jagannath Temple in Puri to see the Lord, have a desire in their hearts to see deities in a calm, beautiful and spiritual environment. This plan is not only for the government or for the temple administration, but also the plan of 4.5 crore [45 million] Odiyas,” said Patnaik before the resolution was unanimously approved with support from opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress.

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The project seeks to create a buffer zone around the 12th century Jagannath Temple and to build pilgrim centres, multi-level car parking, integrated command, and control centre, and parks.

Patnaik, 74, who has been the chief minister since 2000 and has never been known as overtly religious, has been busy seeking divine help of late. His visits to the Jagannath Temple would mostly be during the launch of poll campaigns and after winning elections. But since 2019, his politics has evolved to keep pace with the BJP’s ambitions. His focus on religion and culture is seen to be part of his attempt to keep the BJP’s ploy of painting opponents as insensitive to Hindu aspirations in check.

Patnaik also announced a 200-crore package for the development of Sambalpur’s Maa Samaleswari Temple in February. In the 2021-22 Budget, his government announced a 742 crore allocation for the development of Jagannath and Lingaraj Temple (Bhubaneswar). There have also been announcements of support for temples in Mayurbhanj and Kendrapara.

Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Ali Kishore Patnaik said Naveen Patnaik is practising soft Hindutva. “By pitching Jagannath Temple as a symbol of Odiya pride and esteem and using state’s budget for the development of temples, he may be trying to upstage the BJP’s plan of using religion for political gains. But he is treading a dangerous path.”

Hindus constitute an overwhelming 93.6% of Odisha’s 42 million population. Christians and Muslims form a mere 2.77 and 2.17% of the population. There has never been any large-scale mobilisation based on religion in the state barring a handful of constituencies. There has not been overt political mobilisation on the basis of caste or class either. The politics of three major parties— Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD), BJP, and Congress— has revolved around leadership and local issues.

BJD has been a dominant force on the back of social welfare schemes and Patnaik’s incorruptible image. Ahead of the 2019 polls, it announced Kalia Scheme for cash assistance to 5.7 million small and marginal farmers. The state runs around 60 social assistance programmes for tribals, youths, slum dwellers, farmers, women, weavers, and artisans.

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The BJP’s steady rise has had the BJD worried. It won 9 out of the 30 zilla parishads in 2017; 8 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats; and 23 of 147 assembly seats in 2019. The BJP’s vote share rose to 38.37% in 2019.

The BJP is expected to focus on Odisha once the Bengal elections are over. “Hindutva forces have been active in Odisha for more than two decades and Naveen Patnaik realises that the BJP would use the religion card. He has the women voters firmly behind him and now probably hopes that soft Hindutva turn would stop any erosion in his vote base,” said Rabi Das, a journalist.

The beautification drive of temples has earned Patnaik praise among middle-class Odiyas as commercial and several crumbling structures around them have been bulldozed. The families, who have lost their homes to the demolition around the temple, have supported the drive after getting lucrative rehabilitation packages.

Sociologist Rita Ray said in the name of religion, people are being distracted from real issues. “There are other pressing issues such as rising unemployment... The increasing focus on religion would serve no purpose other than making them more obsequious.”

State Congress chief Niranjan Patnaik questioned whether beautification was absolutely necessary when the economy is in a shambles? “If BJD wanted to save the cultural heritage, why did not it do it a few years earlier when the state’s finances were in better shape? The beautification drive is just for votes.”

BJD lawmaker Amar Patnaik said the beautification should be seen in the context of the state’s cultural traditions. “Jagannath culture is the identity of Odisha since times immemorial and includes the Odiya identity of Muslims, Jains, Buddhists. More than the religious part, we are celebrating the cultural traditions of Bhubaneswar and Puri,” he said. He added money has been given for the development of mosques and churches too.

But will the temple beautification drive appeal to the state’s tribals, who account for the state’s 22% population? Anthropologist Jayant Nayak of Central University, Koraput, said there is no difference between the Hindus and tribals. “During Rathyatras in tribal-dominated Koraput and Mayurbhanj districts, maximum participation is from tribal communities. The Hindu and tribal identities are interchangeable.”

Union minister and BJP’s most prominent face in Odisha, Dharmendra Pradhan, has proposed a donation drive for the beautification. “The magnificent Sri Mandir was constructed 1,000 years ago with people’s participation... The role of state and administration is secondary. Today, people have to come forward to collaborate and participate in promoting our rich culture and age-old traditions,” said Pradhan at a webinar with Odiyas in 35 countries and Puri king Gajapati Dibyasingh Dev.

The state government plans to counter BJP’s plan by installing donation boxes at major airports and railway stations across the country.

For BJP, Puri and Jagannath temple are key to their scheme of things. The party has been trying to blend the Jagannath culture with Hindutva. BJP leader Sambit Patra lost the Puri seat to BJD’s Pinaki Mishra in the 2019 national polls. In June last year, when it seemed the annual Rath Yatra festival of Lord Jagannath would not happen due to Covid guidelines, the Centre facilitated it by moving the Supreme Court that allowed it with some restrictions.

The National Monument Authority brought draft heritage by-laws for Jagannath, Ananta Basudeva and Brahmeswar temples under the provisions of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains (Amendment and Validation) Act, 2010. The draft proposed to prohibit construction activities within the 100-metre radius of the monuments, effectively derailing Patnaik’s plans of development of the corridors around Jagannath and Lingaraj temples. After much protest, the byelaws were put on hold.

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Gyana Ranjan Swain, a political science professor, said the BJP is aware that BJD is trying to snatch its religious card through the development of old temples in a deeply religious state like Odisha.

The BJP does not want to be publicly seen to be opposing the temple beautification drive. It cannot also let the BJD use the religion card a year before the panchayat polls. The BJP has started a debate on the demolition of old Hindu mutts and monuments in Puri and Bhubaneswar. Last month, BJP lawmaker Aparajita Sarangi wrote to Naveen Patnaik asking him who advised him on demolishing sacred Emar, Mangu and Languli mutts.

“It is painful to learn that mutts associated with the most revered saints have been razed to the ground. People are left with a sense of disbelief that Mathas/heritage monuments which were so closely associated with our religious belief system, integral to the daily and special rituals of Lord Jagannath have been demolished,” she wrote.

Sarangi demanded the setting up of a committee to assess the scale of destruction.

Pradhan on Sunday proposed devotees of Lord Jagannath should unite to preserving the rich heritage. “I proposed the development of a Nidhi Samarpan Abhiyan (funds collection) like mechanism for galvanising the spirit, emotion, and devotion of the entire Hindu Samaj and facilitating large-scale participation in spearheading the pious work of promoting Lord Jagannath’s culture,” Pradhan said.

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