A couple of weeks ago, speculation was rife in Odisha that former Kendrapara MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, who openly accused the BJP of ‘going soft’ on his bête noire CM Naveen Patnaik, was in talks with the Congress about contesting the forthcoming Lok Sabha election from his former constituency with its support. No wonder his decision to join the saffron party on March 4 has surprised many. But why this sudden volte face? Political pundits in Odisha feel the industrialist-turned-politician changed tack after realising the tide had turned in favour of the BJP after the air strike across the LoC.
On the back foot since the defeat in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh over issues such as unemployment and attacks on Dalits and Muslims, the BJP found in the air strike an opportunity to put the Opposition on the defensive. In any case, the Congress had apparently made it clear that it was willing to field Jay from Kendrapara, but not back him as an independent candidate as he wanted. With time running out, Jay must have decided that joining the BJP was the best available course for him.
Speculation about Jay’s entry into BJP had started right after the 2014 elections due to his frequent praise of PM Narendra Modi on various issues in his columns and tweets. Such talks gathered momentum when he started targeting Naveen indirectly by calling for ‘introspection’ after the ruling BJD conceded nearly 300 zilla parishad seats to the BJP in the February 2017 panchayat elections. However, Jay stuck to his “all three options (joining the BJP or the Congress, or forming his own party) are open” line until a couple of weeks ago. Now that he has made his choice, the talk has shifted to whether he can win his former constituency for the BJP. Kendrapara has always been an anti-Congress bastion with first Socialists and then various avatars of the ‘Janata Parivar’ winning successive elections since 1957. The BJP, in contrast, does not really have a large support base in Jay’s former constituency, and indeed the whole of coastal Odisha, which has been a BJD stronghold since 2000.
Besides, he also has to contend with a vengeful Naveen, who is known to go to great lengths to ensure the defeat of those who fall out with him. A case in point is Bijoy Mohapatra, the once powerful leader with a solid base in Kendrapara, who has failed to make it to the assembly since being tricked out of the BJD by a wily Naveen just before the 2000 election.
It also remains to be seen if Muslims, who comprise a significant section of the Kendrapara electorate and have supported him in the past, would back him now that he has joined a party that is seen as ‘anti-Muslim’. It is surely not going to be easy for Jay to reverse the trend, though he has, by all accounts, nursed his constituency well during his two terms as MP.
The BJP is marketing Jay’s joining as a big acquisition and a sign of the tide turning against Naveen. The former MP has charisma, after all, and is seen as a well-meaning and earnest politician by at least a section of the Odia youth. But senior journalist and political observer Ashutosh Mishra believes the BJP may benefit to a limited extent from Jay coming on board, but it would do nothing to fundamentally change the political scenario in Odisha as a whole in favour of the saffron party.
“Jay is a resourceful person whose family runs OTV, the No. 1 Odia channel in the state, which can play a crucial role in the elections,” Mishra tells Outlook. “Besides, he has some support in Kendrapara, though it is difficult to say if that is enough for him to win without the BJD banner. And he is, by no means, a mass leader. In fact, a major problem for the BJP is that it has no mass leader with a pan-Odisha appeal.”
Besides taking on the BJD’s might, Twitter-savvy Jay also has the challenge of holding his own in his new party. BJD heavyweights Bijoy Mohapatra and Dilip Ray had earlier crossed over to the BJP only to resign afterwards. If he can beat these seemingly daunting odds and come out trumps, he would be well on course to play a major role in Odisha politics in the years ahead.
- Speculation about Jay’s entry into the BJP had started way back in 2014 when he praised PM Modi several times.
- The BJP is marketing Jay’s joining the party as a big acquisition and a sign of the tide turning against CM Naveen.
By Sandeep Sahu in Bhubaneswar