In April 2018, Srikant Jena, a veteran politician from the Khandayat community—which falls in Odisha’s Socially and Educationally Backward Classes list—who was heading the Congress’s manifesto committee in the state, sent a missive to Niranjan Patnaik, the party’s state chief, and other Congress members. Jena, a former union minister, had proposed a preamble to the party’s manifesto for the concurrent 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Odisha. He wrote that if the party is voted to power, the chief minister and the two deputy chief ministers should be selected from candidates belonging to the Other Backward Classes or Socially and Educationally Backward Classes, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes. “This will enable equitable representation for all section of the society since these communities are collectively 92 per cent of the Odisha’s population and ensure the rule of Bahujan,” he reasoned.
Odisha’s contemporary political landscape had not witnessed such an assertive attempt to give political power to marginalised communities, not least by a senior leader of a mainstream party. But Jena’s proposition did not sit well with the Congress’s upper-caste leadership. If implemented, it would end Patnaik’s chief ministerial ambitions, because he is a Kayastha. In December that year, Jena was removed from the manifesto committee, and the following month, he was sacked from the party on disciplinary grounds, along with Krushna Chandra Sagaria, a Dalit leader.
Jena’s ouster was in keeping with the historical hegemony of Brahmins and Kayasthas over political power in the state. Yet, Odisha is also one of the few states where marginalised communities are present in a large percentage—SCs and STs constitute around 17 percent and 23 percent of its population, respectively. According to Jena, who served as the union minister of state for statistics and programme implementation, OBCs account for approximately 54 percent of the state’s population. This estimate includes the Khandayats, who are not in the central OBC lists, but figure in Odisha’s list of SEBCs. However, locals in Odisha consider the Khandayats as a sub-caste of the upper caste Kshatriyas. But in over seventy one years of independence, the state has had only Brahmin or Kayastha chief ministers for over half a century. As a result, the politics of promoting social justice is conspicuous by absence in the state.
The juxtaposition of the castes of former chief ministers with the percentage of upper-castes in the state reveals the disproportionate representation of upper castes in leadership positions. While there are no official figures for the upper-caste demographic, estimates by media reports and political leaders state that Brahmins only account for five to ten percent of the state’s population, but four individuals from the community have served as chief ministers. Kayasthas, locally known as Karans, constitute three to five percent of the total population in the state. But the Patnaiks, who are Karans, have held the chief minister’s post for almost forty years. In stark contrast, Odisha has had just two tribal chief ministers who were in power for a total of 16 months. Moreover, a Rajput and two members of the Khandayat community—which is estimated to account for around 22 percent of Odisha’s population—have also ruled the state. No Dalit leader has ever been appointed to the post. “The state has remained poor because the poorest did not get their due under the chief ministers who were upper castes,” Jena told me.
The political blind eye to caste-based discrimination was evident during the 2019 Lok Sabha and assembly elections—all the key political players ignored these issues in their campaigns. Moreover, their electoral discourse targeted groups such as women, youth and farmers, without being mindful of the communities they hail from. The ruling Biju Janata Dal highlighted its schemes for farmers and women during its canvassing. The Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress focussed on the lack of development in the state. None of the parties addressed crucial issues such as how the SEBC reservation does not match the quota recommended by the Mandal Commission, or the age-old caste-based systems of bonded labour that are still prevalent in parts of the state. Across party lines, the current leadership is in the hands of upper castes. Naveen Patnaik, the chief minister from the BJD, is the president of the party. Similarly, the Congress’s president in Odisha is also a Patnaik. Basanta Panda, who helms the BJP in Odisha is a Brahmin as well.