Dharmendra Pradhan may be the BJP’s money man in Odisha but his rising star could cost the party

49-year-old Dharmendra Pradhan is considered to be a close confidant of the BJP president Amit Shah. BJP.org
20 May, 2019

On 23 March, Raj Kishore Das, a vice president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Odisha unit, resigned from the party. Das blamed Dharmendra Pradhan, the union minister of petroleum and natural gas and the face of the BJP in the state, for his exit. “Pradhan is conspiring against every leader who has support on the ground … He realised that if my stature went up in the party, I would overshadow him so he started working against me,” he said in an interview to a local news channel. Three days later, Subash Chauhan, a senior BJP leader who has been associated with the Sangh Parivar since 1995, also quit the party. He, too, held Pradhan responsible for his exit. “The party is in the pocket of an individual and the Sangh Parivar is protecting him,” Chauhan told the media on the day of his resignation. Later that day, in an interview, Chauhan named Pradhan and said, “The party is being used to fulfil the ambition of one person—how he would become CM, how he can be brought to power—with that mind, it’s being worked out in the party.”

Chauhan was among few leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh who were considered to be the force behind the BJP’s emergence as a major contender in western Odisha, after the party won 297 of the 851 zilla parishad seats in the 2017 local-body elections. He was also the national convenor of the Bajrang Dal—a militant youth-wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad—from July 2010 to October 2012. During the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won just one of the state’s 21 seats. Chauhan lost from his constituency, Bargarh, but by a mere 11,178 votes, and clocked the highest number of votes for a BJP candidate. The departure of two senior party leaders from the state had sent strong ripples across the ground, but evoked no public response from Pradhan.

Notably, the rebellion within the BJP against Pradhan is not limited to Chauhan and Das. As Odisha prepped for simultaneous assembly and parliamentary elections to be held over four phases in April, several BJP leaders and cadre started protesting against Pradhan. In the first week of April, I witnessed at least two protests by party workers in front of the BJP’s Bhubaneswar office, where they raised slogans against Pradhan. At least twenty workers who participated in the protests had resigned because they were angry with Pradhan. Over the week, I interviewed a dozen political leaders across party lines to understand Pradhan’s rise in the BJP and the challenges he faces.

Pradhan has been a member of the Sangh Parivar since 1983, and is considered to be a close confidant of Vipin Bihari Nanda, the RSS’s Odisha chief. According to several BJP leaders, Pradhan also enjoys the support of Amit Shah, the BJP national president. My conversations with Odisha’s political leaders revealed that the general perception among the state BJP leadership is that Shah and Nanda support Pradhan because of his talent for fundraising, which has helped the party significantly bolster its ground-level cadre over the last five years.

Pradhan’s role in building the BJP’s state unit and his backing from the RSS and party leadership has projected him as the face of the party and a strong contender for the chief minister’s position. Yet, there is significant competition for the post. The support from the top echelons aside, Pradhan faces serious challenges from three fronts within the state leadership—the BJP’s old guard, who resent his rise without holding an elected position in the state; a faction of RSS members who have been sidelined by Pradhan, and their sympathisers; and senior Biju Janata Dal rebels, who are vying for influence in the BJP. According to senior party members, these internal fault lines are the reason why the BJP did not outright project Pradhan as the party’s chief ministerial candidate—the prime minister Narendra Modi was the face of the campaign—for the just concluded assembly elections.

Pradhan started his political career as an activist of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidayarthi Parishad—the RSS’s student wing—or ABVP, in 1983. In 2000, he won the Odisha assembly election from Pallalhara, his home constituency. This was his first and only assembly election win. In 2004, he decided to contest the Lok Sabha election from the Deogarh constituency. The constituency was a legacy seat, twice represented by his father Debendra Pradhan, who had served as a minister of state in former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government. Though Pradhan won the constituency that year, his tenure was marred by an unflattering anecdote that still does the rounds today. The story goes that Pradhan coerced his father to vacate the Deogarh seat so that he could take over. Debendra retired from politics that very year. After his resignation, Das compared Pradhan with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb: “Like Aurangzeb who imprisoned his father to get himself to the throne, Pradhan made his father sit home to contest the Deogarh Lok Sabha constituency.”

The 2004 victory marked Pradhan’s last electoral win. He contested and lost the 2009 assembly elections from Pallalhara, and has not participated in any election since then. Nevertheless, his influence in the BJP’s central leadership continued to grow—over the next few years, he served as the party’s state incharge and election incharge in Bihar, Jharkhand and Karnataka. In 2010, the party appointed Pradhan as one of its general secretaries. Two years later, he was given a Rajya Sabha membership by the BJP, from Bihar. At the end of his term, in 2018, the party sent him to the Rajya Sabha again, but this time from Madhya Pradesh.

In 2014, as a Rajya Sabha member, Pradhan was inducted into the Modi government as minister of state for the petroleum and oil ministry. As MoS, Pradhan focussed his energies on making Modi’s flagship programme, the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana—a scheme to provide access to LPG connections to women from below-poverty-line households—or PMUY, a success. In September 2017, in a cabinet reshuffle, Modi elevated him to the rank of union minister for the same ministry, with an additional charge of the ministry of skill development and entrepreneurship. This promotion was reportedly a reward for his work on the PMUY.

Another highlight of Pradhan’s tenure as MoS was the setting up of a Rs 6,000 crore liquefied natural gas, or LNG terminal in coastal Odisha, which would cater to the demand of natural gas in households and industrial hubs across thirteen districts. The project, which was started in 2016, is a public-private partnership with a majority stake owned by Adani Enterprises—the flagship company of Gautam Adani who is considered to be close to Narendra Modi.

Several leaders I spoke to said that Shah’s support for Pradhan stems from his work as the petroleum minister, and that Pradhan gained power in the BJP on account of being the money man. The allegation seemed probable given the fact that Pradhan has not won a single election since 2004. Several leaders told me that Pradhan does not even have ground support in his home constituency of Pallalhara anymore. Chauhan laughed when I asked him to explain Pradhan’s fundraising capabilities. “CSR, what else?” he said, referring to the legal mandate on certain companies to spend 2 percent of their average net profits on corporate social responsibility activities or projects. However, several companies have used the CSR funds to curry political favour by investing in government projects.

A consultant, who helped the BJP’s state unit in the campaign this election, however, described Pradhan as someone who “is able to get shit done.” The consultant explained, “He knows who to identify, who to delegate it to—he is very good at identifying who is good at what.”

In 2017, under Pradhan’s watch, the BJP replaced the Congress as the main opposition in Odisha against the ruling BJD. The factors behind BJP’s emergence as the principle opposition to the BJD are twofold. First, the party’s victory in 297 zilla parishads in the local body elections held in February that year—up from the paltry 36 wins in 2012—all of which were seen predominantly in the tribal districts of Bolangir, Bargarh, Malkangiri, Keonjhar and Mayurbhanj. These districts are considered to be RSS strongholds. The RSS mobilised and recruited the local residents of these into its Hindutva agenda, and led a sustained and belligerent campaign against alleged conversions of tribals. Two incidents in particular were prominent and infamous results of this campaign—in January 1999, a Christian missionary named Graham Staines and his two children were burned alive by Bajrang Dal activists; and in 2008, targeted communal attacks in the state’s Kandhamal district led to the death of at least 38 Christians.

The RSS’s fierce Hindutva and anti-conversion agenda, however, is largely responsible for the BJP’s support in these tribal districts, and provides an insight into the discontent against Pradhan. Though the RSS rank and file enabled the BJP to scale up in the hinterland, the party sidelined senior RSS leaders in the state, such as Debendra Mohapatra, Panchanan Rout and Sukanta Panigrahi—and Pradhan is held responsible for it. Chauhan told me that the state’s RSS chief, Vipin Bihari Nanda, is Pradhan’s guru—recruits to the RSS have to accept a senior member as their guru, who is considered even more important than family. According to Chauhan, it was Nanda who was trying to winnow leaders who might challenge Pradhan’s authority. Both Das and Chauhan claimed that due to this disrespect of senior Sangh leaders, several RSS workers would work against the BJP in this election.

The second major development for the BJP that enabled their rise in the state has been the rapid expansion of ground-level committees to convert support into votes. In the last five years alone, the BJP’s state unit has added 36,000 booth-level committees—the party has a total of 92,000 booths in Odisha. The BJP’s central leadership has often given Pradhan the credit for this achievement, though only a few accept the claim at the state level. “It’s true that Pradhan did extensive campaigning during panchayat elections but the cadre belongs to RSS. They had worked on it for decades,” said one of the BJP’s leaders, who did not want to be named.

In 2016, as the LNG project was being finalised, serious speculation over Pradhan’s rise to the top of the state BJP began gaining traction for the first time. The party was set to nominate its state president and media reports started pitting Pradhan and another cabinet minister from the state, Jual Oram, as the main contenders for the post. Both of them had been visiting the state on a regular basis and meeting the party cadre. Media reports also suggested that since the two leaders were engaged in their positions at the central government—Oram heads the ministry of tribal affairs—they would be backing their respective aides in the state. Senior state leaders were also reported to be in the race, including KV Singh Deo, a five-time member of legislative assembly, Pratap Sarangi, a two-time MLA and Basanta Panda, an RSS member who was known to be Pradhan’s favoured man. Eventually, Panda was appointed as the party’s president in Odisha.

Oram is another example of a senior BJP leader of Odisha with a prominent political record who was sidelined in favour of Pradhan. Oram is one of the two founding members of the BJP’s Odisha unit. In the 1990 assembly elections in Odisha, which marked BJP’s electoral debut in the state, Oram was one of only two party leaders who won. A tribal himself, he commands wide support in the tribal belt and is a four-time member of parliament from his Lok Sabha constituency, Sundergarh. Oram was also the lone BJP MP from Odisha in 2014 general elections.

Yet, since 2014, Oram has disappeared from the discourse around the chief ministerial position. In November 2018, he himself endorsed Pradhan’s candidature as the face of the party for chief minister post. That month, an Indian Administrative Services officer, Aparajita Sarangi, had taken voluntary retirement and joined the BJP at Amit Shah’s residence in Delhi. Soon, she began being promoted on social media as a possible contender to be the BJP’s chief ministerial candidate. The next day, Oram told journalists, “There is no doubt in anybody’s mind. Dharmendra babu will be our chief ministerial candidate. Earlier also I have said we will fight the next elections in the state under his leadership.” But the state leadership dissociated itself from Oram’s statement. Pratap Sarangi called it Oram’s “personal view.”

An explanation for Oram’s dwindling significance in the BJP can be found in the party’s Brahminical culture, in which Dalits and Adivasis are considered incompetent. The party’s upper-caste impulse ensures the exclusion of these communities. Basanta Panda, the party president, is a Brahmin; Samir Mohanty, who is the vice president, is a Kayastha and the unofficial head Pradhan, belongs to a socially and educationally backward class, or SEBC community. When I asked Mohanty if Oram was a possible CM candidate, he told me “it’s unlikely.” Mohanty explained that Oram’s presence catered to a “certain type of people,” referring to Adivasis and Dalits, who “are lazy, do not want to work hard and indulge in violence. Dharmendra Pradhan does not like such people.” But the party needs a leader who can represent this segment of the BJP’s voters, he added.

While Oram may no longer be in contention as a CM candidate, it is pertinent to note that for the recently concluded assembly elections, the BJP did not project any chief ministerial candidate during campaigning. All the canvassing was done in the name of Narendra Modi. The leaders I spoke to told me that the party would not be able to project itself and work as a unified political force if it declared a chief ministerial candidate since there were so many claimants.

Indeed, Pradhan appears to have quite a few challengers for the post. In March this year, Baijayant Panda, the senior BJD leader who is more commonly known as Jay Panda, joined the BJP. Panda was sacked from the post of BJD spokesperson in May 2017, and resigned from the party in May 2018—he had been sending feelers to the BJP ever since. He is currently the BJP’s national vice president, a designation that indicates his importance to the party. Panda’s wife owns Odisha TV, one of the most-watched television channels in the state, and his family owns a metal and alloy company that has its own captive mines.

Panda is also credited with reining in Bijoy Mohapatra and Dilip Ray, former top BJD leaders, who defected to the BJP in 2000 and 2002, respectively, and then quit the BJP in November last year. The duo was among the founders of the BJD. On their resignation from the BJP, they addressed a press conference stating that, “We refuse to continue in the party as showpieces. We cannot be treated as furniture in the party.” In March, Mohapatra returned to the BJP and attributed his return to Panda. Ray has not officially re-joined the BJP, but in mid-April he met Mohapatra and told the media that he would support Mohapatra’s campaign for the Patkura assembly seat.

This incident has positioned Panda as a reliable and successful political negotiator for the party. Local journalists believed that instead of Pradhan, the BJP may depend on Panda for post–poll alliance negotiations to form the government, in case the BJP wins a considerable number of assembly or parliament seats.

However, the consultant who worked for the BJP’s campaign disagreed with the narrative that Panda was being positioned as the BJP’s ace negotiator. “I have heard of this too, but it’s only OTV”—Panda’s wife’s television network—“that is setting up this narrative,” he told me. Panda, on his part, played it safe when it came to Pradhan. “No one can change the fact that he is a very senior BJP leader who has played a role in building up BJP in Odisha,” he told me, at his residence. “I do not grudge him that, I respect him for that and so I certainly have no issues.” He also said that it was Pradhan who had approached him to join the party. However, Panda refrained from endorsing Pradhan’s claim to the chief minister’s post. “Whoever the party decides,” he said.

In a recent interview, Pradhan accepted that Modi was the mainstay of the BJP’s campaign for both the Lok Sabha and assembly elections, and not him. An aide of Pradhan, who requested to remain anonymous, told me that, “this is now or never.” He continued, “We will never have a face to counter Naveen Patnaik in the state, except that of Modi. If Modi goes down, I do not think BJP will have a chance for another decade in Odisha.” This sentiment was echoed by Damodar Rout, who was the agriculture minister in the incumbent BJD state government before he joined the BJP. Rout told me that while he was “disheartened” with the BJP because “they do not seek my advice on anything,” he, too, felt that BJP was at its strongest in the state with Modi as its face.

Satyaprakash Nayak, a former journalist and the Congress candidate from the Puri constituency, told me that Pradhan did not like to be questioned and expected people to accept his authority unchallenged. He recounted an incident from his journalism career, when he was working with TV18, to demonstrate his claim. “Ek story chali thi, BJP ke ek candidate Pratap Sarangi ke barey mein. Unke baarey mein toh accha bola gaya tha, lekin Dharmendra Pradhan ji ko accha nahin laga, wahan se phone gayaA story was run about a BJP candidate, Pratap Sarangi. The story said good things about him, but Dharmendra Pradhan did not like it and we got a phone call from him.

Nayak alleged that Pradhan forced his editor to call him and asked him to apologise to Pradhan. At the time, Nayak told me, only the promotional clip of the story had gone on air and the full interview with Sarangi was yet to be telecast. Yet, Nayak’s editor wanted him to drop the interview and meet Pradhan first. “I told them that I will drop it, it’s your channel after all, but give me one reason as to what I should tell Sarangi,” Nayak said. “That I took money from Pradhan to drop his interview?” Nayak said that after this incident he resigned from the news channel and has kept away from the profession since then. I reached out to TV18 to confirm Nayak’s narrative. A senior employee at the channel responded to me after speaking with one of the board members who was familiar with Nayak’s case. The senior employee said that Nayak was asked to step down but “it had nothing to do with Dharmendra Pradhan.” According to the channel, Nayak “had a problem with the local editor there. The management asked them to sort their issues amicably; else like this the bureau cannot function. The management sent a fact finding team to Odisha and found that Nayak was not listening to his editor and was arrogant.”

The incident is infamous among Odisha’s reporters. Some of them told me that since Nayak’s encounter with the BJP leader, reporters in the state refrain from asking Pradhan pointed questions because they are afraid of the amount of influence he wields.

Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the top leadership of the BJP in Odisha is comprised of Brahmins and incorrectly identified Samir Mohanty and Dharmendra Pradhan as Brahmin leaders. The text has been corrected to reflect that Samir Mohanty is a Kayastha; that Dharmendra Pradhan hails from a socially and educationally backward class community; and that the BJP leadership excludes Dalits and Adivasis. The Caravan regrets the error.