Bhubaneswar: When media baron and politician Soumya Ranjan Patnaik wrote a front-page column in his leading Odia newspaper taking polite potshots at Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, he might have guessed the political storm it would raise. But this 68-year-old MLA of Naveen Patnaik’s Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has never shied away from stirring up the hornet’s nest with his pen. That is why despite his 25 years in politics, he is known in Odisha primarily as a journalist.
The column by Soumya Ranjan, who edits Odisha’s leading daily newspaper ‘Sambad’ and also runs a news channel, touched upon the burning issue of the COVID deaths in the state. Titled ‘Cheating even after becoming first in the class,’ the column, published on Thursday, has caused widespread resentment in his party, BJD, because it claimed that the state government concealed the real number of people who died of COVID-19. The Opposition BJP and Congress have hailed Soumya Ranjan as the latest poster boy of probity in politics.
Although a longish first paragraph praised Naveen Patnaik’s political leadership and his administrative acumen, mentioning how it has brought him global laurels, the column’s central point was not lost on anyone, least of all his party BJD. It indicted Naveen Patnaik’s administration, implying that the CM deliberately kept the high COVID death numbers low in order not to lose the possibility of more laurels.
“Compared to national statistics, the COVID death toll in our state has been very low considering our low population. It is small even when we look at the total number of deaths in the country now. So revealing the real death toll (in Odisha) would not have brought us any harm. On the contrary, efforts by the administration to hide it are undermining the dignity of the regime,” wrote the maverick Soumya Ranjan, the son-in-law of Odisha’s former Congress CM JB Patnaik, in his column.
Apart from this column, in which he also urged Naveen Patnaik to bring out a white paper on the real number of COVID deaths and thereby “show his courage”, Soumya Ranjan also devoted a full inside page of his newspaper to reportage about alleged concealment of COVID deaths across Odisha.
Although the state government claims that 4,018 people have died of COVID-19 so far – 1,876 in the first wave and 2,142 in the second wave this year – the Opposition BJP and Congress insist that the real number is more than double. They rely on data collected from crematoriums across Odisha and figures obtained through RTI. The number of daily cremations at many places this year was more than the official statewide daily death figures on certain days.
“Ironically, the state administration’s shenanigans came to the fore due to some of the government’s innovative schemes such as the one in which the CM offered special benefits to children orphaned by the COVID epidemic. The administration’s right hand does not know what the left hand is doing. We do not know how much of this the Honourable Chief Minister is aware of,” wrote Soumya Ranjan in his column.
He went on to write: “The CM’s style of functioning is also different. Unlike other politicians, he does not like to be amidst party workers and the people. He likes to work through a handful of political loyalists and bureaucrats. The pandemic has further limited it”. Soumya Ranjan also asked, “Is the CM under the kind of pressure that a meritorious student feels after emerging first in the class?”
Now, with the opposition BJP and Congress thanking Soumya Ranjan for writing the column, he himself has declined to comment on it. BJD leaders are seething over the developments, privately dubbing his act as “double-facedness” and openly asking him to offer the “real death toll” if he has gathered it. In Odisha, where media and politics often make familiar bedfellows, many see Soumya Ranjan’s predicament as essentially that of a thoroughbred journalist failing to reconcile to his role as a ruling-party politician.
“With his column, Soumya Ranjan has done his job well as an editor, but as a ruling BJD politician he has started indiscipline in the party. When he was in Congress, he had written a column criticising Rahul Gandhi, for which he faced a committee mulling disciplinary action against him and ultimately he quit Congress. Now he seems to have targeted CM and BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik directly,” said political observer Prasanna Mohanty.
Veteran journalist Akshay Kumar Sahoo said: “Soumya Ranjan stays fixed to his roots. He is always a journalist first and politician next. It keeps showing from time to time.” BJD is unlikely to take any action against him for the time being, said Sahoo.
BJP state general secretary Prithviraj Harichandan thanked Soumya Ranjan for expressing what BJP’s state executive had said in its resolution three days ago. “While 250 to 300 bodies were being cremated every day in various cemeteries in Odisha, the state government used to put the daily toll at 25 to 30. By hiding the death toll, the state government is depriving the beneficiaries of the central government’s schemes for their kin,” he said. Senior Congress MLA and former minister Suresh Rautaray praised Soumya Ranjan for voicing “what no BJD minister, MP or MLA has dared speak”.
However, Pramila Mallick, chief whip of the ruling BJD, said, “The government has not hidden any information regarding COVID deaths. Ask him (Soumya Ranjan) where it is hidden and give the details if he knows.”
Soumya Ranjan, who revolutionised the journalism scene in Odisha by starting the ‘Sambad’ newspaper in 1984, was elected to Lok Sabha as a Congress MP in Bhubaneswar in 1996. After quitting the party in 2013, he turned his NGO ‘Ama Odisha’ as a political party aiming at providing an alternative to BJD. In March 2018, he merged his party with BJD and was instantly nominated to Rajya Sabha. He contested the 2019 state elections and won to become a BJD legislator.