India: New Chief Minister And Old Habits Of Hindutva Culture In Odisha – OpEd


Mr. Mohan Charan Majhi took the oath as the new Chief Minister of Odisha following the electoral defeat of the BJD led by Mr. Naveen Patnaik, who served as Chief Minister for twenty-four years. The new Chief Minister is the son of a security guard and a four-time MLA who hails from the remote village of Raikala in the Keonjhar district. He belongs to the Santali tribe and comes from a working-class family. Such achievements and political mobilities are possible only in a democratic society. Mr Majhi’s leadership even in the form of symbolic representation in a democracy deserves celebration.

Mr. Majhi is the third Chief Minister of Odisha from the tribal community, which constitutes 22.84% of the state’s total population, 9.20% of the nation’s Scheduled Tribes, and about 0.79% of the nation’s entire population as per the 2011 census. The first two tribal Chief Ministers did nothing visible for the social, economic, and political empowerment of tribal communities in the state. However, this democratic representation of indigenous leadership highlights the progress of Odisha’s political landscape, ensuring that even individuals from remote and underrepresented communities can ascend to significant positions of power and responsibility. Therefore, the election of Mr. Majhi as the new Chief Minister of Odisha is a cause for celebration—a celebration of electoral democracy.

Even before taking the oath, when Mr. Majhi was declared by the BJP as the Chief Ministerial candidate, social media and WhatsApp groups were filled with memes and messages reflecting the snobbery of the Brahminical social order composed of caste and class hierarchies empowered by the Hindutva politics that Mr. Majhi represents. Caste and class snobbery find favour within the framework of a Brahminical social order, receiving political patronage from Hindutva politics. This political ideology often perpetuates and reinforces existing caste based social, economic and political hierarchies, privileging certain social groups while marginalising others. Hindutva’s endorsement of such hierarchies not only sustains caste-based discrimination but also reinforces social stratification, thereby entrenching inequalities within society. The BJP has selected Mr. Majhi as their Chief Minister. However, Hindutva politics, which promotes a Brahminical social order, undermines him due to his origin, accent, attire, and tribal background. 

Despite being elected for such a prominent position, Mr. Majhi faces significant challenges. His tribal heritage and unique cultural attributes set him apart from the Brahminical norms promoted by Hindutva ideology. This ideological clash can lead to tensions and challenges in his leadership, as these aspects of his identity may not align with the dominant social order within the party and its broader political framework. By highlighting these issues, it becomes clear that while the BJP’s choice of Mr. Majhi reflects a certain inclusivity, it also exposes underlying conflicts within the party’s ideological stance, potentially affecting his effectiveness and acceptance as Chief Minister. It is incumbent upon Mr. Majhi’s leadership to overcome these contradictions by promoting reforms in Odia society through constitutional, secular, scientific, and progressive values and ideals, which stand in contrast to the Hindutva culture in politics. His ability to navigate these complexities will be crucial in fostering a more inclusive and equitable society in Odisha.

Hindutva politics often relies on symbolic representation and scapegoating of tribal communities and working-class people within the framework of electoral democracy. This political ideology tends to utilise symbolic gestures and narratives, sometimes at the expense of marginalised groups such as tribal communities and the working classes. It strategically employs these tactics to garner support and maintain power within the electoral system while upholding interests of the crony capitalists, propertied caste, and class. 

Mr. Majhi’s political journey has been deeply influenced by Hindutva ideology, a worldview he has been steeped in since the early days of his leadership. His ideological perspectives bear the imprint of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) and its Brahminical caste hierarchy. This ideological grounding informs his approach to governance and decision-making, reflecting a commitment to the principles and values espoused by the exclusionary Hindutva movement.

The BJP and BJD have maintained fraternal relations since the inception of their alliance, a bond that endures to this day. However, despite being the principal opposition party in Odisha, the BJP has struggled to effectively advocate for the interests of the state and its people during the twenty-four-year tenure of BJD rule. Instead, they often exchange support with rare instances of face-saving criticisms. This political camaraderie persists, evident in the recent oath-taking ceremony of Mr. Majhi, leaving the people of Odisha questioning the depth of opposition politics and nature of democracy in the state.

As time progresses, the people of Odisha will observe Mr. Majhi’s leadership and performance closely. They will see whether he adheres to the egalitarian outlook rooted in tribal values or succumbs to the old Brahminical social order promoted by the exclusionary Hindutva ideology. This period will be critical in determining Mr. Majhi’s legacy and the direction of his leadership. If he remains true to his tribal heritage and its values of equality and inclusivity, he may inspire significant social progress and gain widespread support. Conversely, if he conforms to the Brahminical norms, it may lead to further marginalization of tribal communities and reinforce existing social hierarchies. The people of Odisha will be keenly watching to see which path he chooses and the impact it will have on the state’s social and political landscape.

Time will ultimately determine whether Mr. Majhi follows in the footsteps of historical power dynamics, where prominent figures like Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, and Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton, despite being women in positions of power, may not have always represented the interests of women effectively. Similarly, numerous male leaders from the working class have not always championed the interests of their fellow working people in politics. Throughout history, there are numerous examples of leaders who have fallen short of truly advocating for the causes they ostensibly represent. Time will reveal where Mr. Majhi’s legacy falls within this continuum of representation and deepening of democracy in Odisha.

Viva la democracy in Odisha and beyond.

Bhabani Shankar Nayak

Bhabani Shankar Nayak works as Professor of Business Management, Guildhall School of Business and Law, London Metropolitan University, UK.

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