Not long ago, he was the party’s face in Delhi. For years, he represented the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) in almost every discussion on national TV. But today, suspended MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda is persona non grata for the party he claims to have helped found. With the industrialist-turned-politician falling foul of party supremo and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik, the wrath of both the party and the government has fallen on him like a ton of bricks—literally so last May, when he was assaulted with eggs, bricks and stones by BJD members at Mahanga, in his Lok Sabha constituency of Kendrapara, while inaugurating a drinking water project built with his MPLAD funds. Panda lost no time accusing “an officer on the third floor” (the CM’s office) of orchestrating the attack. That’s when things came to a head, though tense undercurrents had been evident since the 2014 general elections.
Panda claims he has been on physiotherapy for 10 months now due to the shoulder injury he suffered in the Mahanga attack, and there hasn’t been a single occasion since when he could visit his constituency without facing protest by BJD workers. “In these months, not once has the party chief called to ask how I am. And that hurts,” says Panda. On January 24, the simmering tensions culminated in his suspension for ‘anti-party’ activities.
There also appears to be a systematic attempt by the state government to chisel away at every entity that has anything to do with him. First, the Odisha State Pollution Control Board stopped mining operations at the Sukinda chrome ore mines owned by Indian Metals and Ferro Alloys (IMFA), the group run by his family, on the rather specious ground that it did not adequately water the roads used for transport of ores. More recently, protesters who were neither workers nor locals laid siege to the IMFA plant at Therubali in Koraput district for 18 days, while the administration all but washed its hands off.
The pincer attack by the ruling party and the government, however, has been most visible in the case of OTV, the No. 1 Odia news channel, run by Panda’s wife, Jagi Mangat. On March 21, the BJD took the unprecedented step of formally announcing a decision to boycott all panel discussions on the popular channel, for what it called its “biased coverage”. Then, in April, three reporters of the channel were summoned and grilled by officers of the Crime Branch for three hours to find out the source of a damning forensic report related to the gang-rape of a Dalit girl in Koraput, allegedly by security forces deployed there for anti-Maoist operations. The girl had committed suicide some months after the rape, alleging denial of justice and harassment for demanding it. The forensic report had caused much embarrassment to the state government.
Rubbishing the charge of biased coverage, Jagi says OTV has scrupulously stuck to its charter of neutrality. “Even after the boycott, we have continued to show the government’s point of view. But they can’t stop us from showing news that doesn’t suit the BJD,” she tells Outlook.
For the record, the BJD has said Panda started working against the party’s interests after Naveen refused to recommend his name to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on finance—a charge the Kendrapara MP dismisses as “utter hogwash”. “His hobnobbing with BJP leaders is public knowledge,” says Rajya Sabha MP and BJD spokesperson Pratap Keshari Deb. “Why does (BJP leader and Union minister) Dharmendra Pradhan jump in to plead IMFA’s case in the standoff at its Therubali plant when he has never bothered about unrest in other industries? Doesn’t it make things all too obvious?”
However, most people, including Panda, believe it is his constant tirade against Naveen’s all-powerful private secretary V.K. Pandian that has led to his current problems with the party leader. “Unlike his father, Naveen is highly vindictive, and obviously believes an attack on Pandian is an attack on him,” says veteran political commentator Rabi Das. “That’s why he has given him a virtual free hand to go after Jay Panda with a vengeance. I have reasons to believe the worst is yet to come.”
As things stand today, the chances of a rapprochement between Panda and Naveen appear to be extremely remote. Panda, too, believes too much water has flown down the Mahanadi for that. Asked if he would, as is widely believed, join the BJP, he says, “Frankly, I haven’t decided about my future. I am seeking guidance from Lord Jagannath.”
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar