Timing of Jay Panda's Suspension Fishy as Naveen Patnaik Faces Flak Over Rape Victim's Suicide
Panda too could not have been entirely unaware of what was coming, given his deeds and words (mostly through Twitter) over the last several months had repeatedly embarrassed the party and would have invited disciplinary action in any other political party.
File photo of Baijayant 'Panda.
It took a long time coming. Though Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda himself, in his immediate reaction to his suspension from the primary membership of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) announced by senior party leader and minister Sujya Narayan Patro on Wednesday evening, tweeted that he was ‘shocked’ by the decision, there was nothing really shocking about the suspension.
In fact, Panda too could not have been entirely unaware of what was coming, given his deeds and words (mostly through Twitter) over the last several months had repeatedly embarrassed the party and would have invited disciplinary action in any other political party. Despite repeated warnings, including once by the party supremo himself, the suave and popular Kendrapara MP had refused to stop embarrassing the party.
The timing was just perfect. The statewide outrage over the suicide of the minor adivasi girl in Koraput district, who had accused four ‘uniformed men’ of raping her near Kunduli village on October 10 last year, was getting too hot to handle. Traumatised by the state government’s claim that the alleged ‘gang rape’ never took place, the girl hanged herself at her home in Musadguda village on Monday, a day when Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik was making a triumphant return to the state capital after being conferred with the ‘Ideal Chief Minister’ award at MIT World Peace University in Pune.
Not only did it spoil the elaborate plans drawn up by the BJD to celebrate the latest recognition for Naveen, it also brought in its wake relentless media attention – most of it unsavoury – with every act of omission and commission of the government in the 100 days since the incident being dissected threadbare.
The 12-hour shut down called separately by the Congress and the BJP on Wednesday had only helped bring the anger out on the streets. So, there could not possibly have been a more appropriate time to turn the spotlight away from the Kunduli case by acting against the rebel party MP, something that has been on the cards for weeks, if not month, now.
The latest flashpoint was his tirade on social media against V Karthikeyan Pandian, officially the private secretary to the Chief Minister but unofficially the man believed to be running both the party and the government on his boss’ behalf. Panda had accused the all-powerful bureaucrat of instigating party workers and local leaders to oppose him wherever he went in his constituency.
In an exercise that was manifestly orchestrated, an elaborate charade was played out for nearly a week with local party leaders from various parts of Panda’s constituency meeting Naveen at his residence and ‘asking for’ action against him every day.
The charges though were the same; ignoring party workers, not taking them into confidence in his activities and spending his MPLAD fund without consulting them. In a first for the 20-year old regional party, Naveen appointed two observers — minister Usha Devi and former minister and the head of the party’s women’s wing Pramilla Mallick — to ‘probe’ the charges against Panda and give a report. In all likelihood, the reports, already submitted three days ago, would have taken a few days more before they were acted on, but for the embarrassment over the suicide by the Kunduli victim.
Significantly, such a long-drawn build up has never be seen when scores of other leaders, many of them much senior to Panda, have been shown the door in the past in a party where Naveen’s word is law. This suggests that the supremo was fully aware of Panda’s popularity, especially among the youth, not just in his constituency, but in the rest of the state and the larger world of Twitter, and hence a little wary of being seen to be acting out of pique.
On his part, Panda seemed to be doing everything possible to force the party leadership to act against him, notwithstanding his ‘shocked’ reaction after being suspended from the primary membership of the BJD.
The press release announcing his suspension, among other things, accused Panda of embarrassing and working against the party’s interests in every possible forum and even acting for the opposition (read BJP) after Naveen turned down his request to be the Chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in the Lok Sabha after the 2014 general election.
It is said Naveen declined the request since it would have meant a serious conflict of interest because Indian Metals & Ferro Alloys (IMFA), a company owned by Panda’s family, had been given a controversial loan waiver worth thousands of crores. It also said Panda drew a salary and perks of R. 1.45 crore in 2014 as vice chairperson of the company. But in raking up Panda’s business connections now, the BJD may have unwittingly scored a self goal. Questions are bound to be asked why the party was tolerating him for so long if there was such a serious issue of conflict of interest.
If his tweets, statements and writings over the last few months are anything to go by, Panda certainly appears to be inching closer to the BJP. He has been a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and has been frequently on the PM’s entourage on his foreign visits. No wonder the BJP was the first to jump to his defence after his suspension was announced on Wednesday.
While Panda himself has never confirmed or denied rumours of his joining the saffron party, it certainly looks a distinct possibility now, though not necessarily immediately because of the compulsions of retaining his parliamentary seat. His family owns OTV, Odisha’s No. 1 news channel, is another reason that makes him a person worth investing in for the BJP.
The fall from grace for the man who was once the face of the BJD in Delhi has been spectacular. But there is no denying that he has more supporters outside the ruling party than inside. His suspension thus wouldn’t be mourned by too many of his party colleagues. And given Naveen’s past record in such matters, one can rest assured he would move heaven and earth to stop Panda from re-entering Parliament in 2019.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
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