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.