Odisha's tryst with tribal CMs and the road ahead for Mohan Charan Majhi - Hindustan Times

Odisha's tryst with tribal CMs and the road ahead for Mohan Charan Majhi

ByDebabrata Mohanty
Jun 14, 2024 07:30 AM IST

Though tribals constitute 22% of the state's population, it is the numerically inferior upper caste who have had an iron grip over its polity and bureaucracy

Mohan Charan Majhi, a 52-year-old Santhali tribal and four-time BJP MLA became the 16th chief minister of Odisha, on June 12, at a ceremony attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union home minister Amit Shah as well as chief ministers of nine BJP-ruled states.

Odisha CM Mohan Charan Majhi greets former state chief minister Naveen Patnaik at Naveen Niwas on June 12.(ANI) PREMIUM
Odisha CM Mohan Charan Majhi greets former state chief minister Naveen Patnaik at Naveen Niwas on June 12.(ANI)

In a victory that saw the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) win 78 seats in the 147-member state assembly and win 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats, the party chose Majhi, a low-profile tribal MLA from mineral-rich Keonjhar district against fancied names such as Dharmendra Pradhan, Baijayant Panda, Manmohan Samal and Suresh Pujari.

The decision to choose Majhi as CM was propelled by several reasons including a move to reach out to the Santhali tribals ahead of the incoming assembly polls in neighbouring Jharkhand, where the tribal community are in majority.

Though tribals constitute a little more than 22% of the state's 4.2 crore population, it is the numerically inferior upper caste who have always had an iron grip over its polity and bureaucracy disproportionate to their numbers. Even the other backward castes who constitute about 50% of the state's population have never had a chief minister from the community. With Majhi at the helm, the tribals have so far had three chief ministers.

So how has been Odisha's tryst with tribal CMs so far?

Hemananda Biswal, a Bhuyan tribesman from Sambalpur, was Odisha's first tribal chief minister who ruled in short stints on two occasions - first between December 7, 1989, and March 5, 1990, and then between December 6, 1999, and March 5, 2000.

In 1989, the then chief minister JB Patnaik had to resign after Congress managed to win just 3 out of the 21 seats in the 9th Lok Sabha election. As the Congress high command looked for options, the mantle fell on Biswal, who had long been a self-proclaimed champion of the tribals in western Odisha.

But Biswal's brief chief ministership could not save the Congress' electoral prospects, as it sank to 10 seats in the 147-member Odisha assembly as people overwhelmingly voted for Biju Patnaik-led Janata Dal that won 123 seats, the highest tally by any party in Odisha so far.

"He was more of a stopgap chief minister than anything else. He did not have any powerful enemies or a strong following. He failed to do anything worthwhile for western Odisha even when he was the chief minister," said SP Dash, a political analyst from Sambalpur.

Biswal again became CM for just about three months in December 1999 after his predecessor, Giridhari Gamang, a former union minister from Rayagada district, failed to bring succour to millions of victims of a supercyclone, which ravaged coastal Odisha.

With elections to the assembly less than three months away and running out of options, the Congress high command again chose Biswal though he had lost from the Deogarh parliamentary constituency a couple of months ago.

Biswal could not save his party from the impending defeat in the assembly elections as the BJD-BJP alliance won 106 seats in the 147-member state assembly.

The second tribal chief minister Gamang was also a stopgap chief minister when he was made CM in February 1999 to replace a discredited JB Patnaik, who had become unpopular in the wake of the gangrape of Odia housewife Anjana Mishra as well as defending his Advocate General, Indrajit Ray, who was accused of molesting Mishra in his chamber.

Gamang, a Sabara tribal from Rayagada district, was the Lok Sabha MP from tribal-dominated Koraput district for eight consecutive times between 1972 and 1999 when Sonia Gandhi chose him to replace the controversial Patnaik. He was a favourite of the Gandhis, having served as union minister for 14 years in the Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao governments holding important ministries such as communication, mines, tourism and planning and programme implementation.

Hoping to turn the tide against the government, Congress president Sonia Gandhi sent Gamang to head Odisha. But he was unable to navigate the intrigues of Odisha politics and ended up alienating the bureaucracy.

In Congress, JB Patnaik continued to be the power broker leaving Gamang adrift. In October 1999 when the super cyclone struck Odisha that killed over 10000 people on the coast and affecting over 1.25 crore people, Gamang could offer little solace to the cyclone victims as relief and rehabilitation efforts fell short. As the clamour for the scalp of Gamang rose, he had to put in his papers in December 1999.


As Majhi starts his tenure as chief minister, details of him sitting on protest with Sudarshan TV editor-in-chief Suresh Chavhanke before the Keonjhar district jail in September 2022 demanding the release of murder convict Dara Singh surfaced on Wednesday.

Singh was sentenced to death by a trial court which was later commuted to life sentence by the Orissa High Court for burning alive Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons in the deep forests of Keonjhar in January 1999. Apart from the murder of Staines and his two sons, Singh, now 61 years old, is convicted in two other murder cases.

The road ahead

Soon after taking over, Majhi announced measures like forming a committee to implement minimum support prices of 3100 per quintal for paddy and 50000 vouchers for women.

Political experts, however, believe that Majhi has to do a tightrope act to not meet the fate of Biswal and Gamang.

"Many may say Majhi becoming CM is a mere act of tokenism on the part of the Modi government. But at least they are walking the talk first by making a tribal woman from Odisha as President and then a CM. Unlike Biswal and Gamang, the new BJP CM has spent all his time in opposition before becoming CM and is aware of the issues that affect people. He was very vocal in the assembly as he asked maximum questions during the last three Assemblies and tried to put the government on the mat by raising issues related to mining. It would be premature to dismiss him so early," said political analyst Gyana Ranjan Swain.

Former parliamentary affairs minister and Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo said Majhi can chart a separate path for himself if he works on "collective functioning", which would help him take control of the state's bureaucracy and keep his administration free of corruption.

"Bureaucracy is a bad master, but can be a good servant if tackled well. By taking all his colleagues along in all important matters, Majhi can subdue the state's bureaucrats and make them work for people," Kanungo said.

"It was the bureaucracy which drubbed Naveen Patnaik and he (Majhi) needs to rein them in to fulfil key promises like 3100 MSP for farmers, 50000 cash voucher for women, rooting out corruption in Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and keeping the mining mafia in check. But whether he can do it in a party like BJP where there are too many power centres and the high command culture is prevalent is a million dollar question," said Kanungo.

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