Jay Panda had to go, question is why did Naveen Patnaik choose this moment?
Biju Janata Dal (BJD) chief and Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik finally cracked the whip on party MP Baijayant Jay Panda and suspended him from the party over “anti-party activities”. Soon after the decision was announced, Panda expressed shock over his suspension and accused Patnaik of not seeing through the conspiracy hatched against him by a senior bureaucrat.
*I'm shocked at this news— Baijayant Jay Panda (@PandaJay) January 24, 2018
*Very very sad @Naveen_Odisha didn't see thru the conspiracy agnst me led by an IAS ofcr now controlling th party
*I vehemently deny the allegations agnst me, they are entirely false & baseless
*I will pray to Jagannath for guidance b4 i respond further
Panda's suspension was a foregone conclusion and it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened. Over the past few months, Panda had raised the banner of revolt and often took to social networking sites, particularly Twitter, to embarrass the government. His tirade against his own government in multiple opinion pieces in newspapers further embarrassed the incumbent chief minister who is looking for fifth consecutive term as chief minister.
The chief minister had issued warnings to the 54-year-old MP through multiple forums but these fell on deaf ears as a combative Panda continued to take potshots at the government and party leaders. Miffed with his attitude, several party leaders campaigned in the state for Panda's removal accusing him speaking in BJP's tone.
Though Panda's removal was long overdue, it is the timing of the announcement that yet again speaks volumes about Patnaik being a master tactician. Facing heat over the suicide of a tribal girl from Koraput district on 10 October, who claimed that she was raped by “four uniformed men” which was refuted by the state government, a wily Patnaik has yet again been successful in diverting attention from the issue.
What further made his position in the party untenable was his criticism of Patnaik's favourite bureaucrat V Karthikeyan who is said to be running the show in the state. Not only government, the bureaucrat seems to have an iron grip over the day to day party affairs – a hallmark of Patnaik's model of governance.
In the early stages of his career, Patnaik had given similar powers to former bureaucrat Pyarimohan Mohapatra, who too ran the show for the chief minister until the two fell out. Mohapatra was accused of plotting a coup to dislodge Patnaik and was eventually shown the door which made him politically irrelevant till he succumbed to cancer in 2017.
Further, the decision shouldn't have come as a surprise to Panda considering how Patnaik had earlier shunted out some of the senior most leaders of the party without batting an eye lid. In fact, some of these leaders were also the founding members of the BJD and yet it made no difference to the Odisha chief minister.
What also made Panda's position in the party untenable was how a host of local leaders, including ministers and legislators, who accused the 54-year-old MP of not holding any discussions with them on issues of development. The latest flashpoint was how Panda went about using his MPLAD funds without even consulting the local leadership. It is for this reason that Naveen appointed two observers – Usha Devi and Pramilla Mallick – to submit a report on Panda's misdeeds.
Though the contents to the two reports have not yet been made public, it obvious that they castigated Panda for his conduct. Panda has been at loggerheads with health minister and Mahanga legislator Pratap Jena. Mahanga falls in Panda's Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency and Jena for long had been accusing the suspended leader of not holding any consultations with the local leadership over development issues.
In 2017, Jena accused Panda of ignoring him and not adding his name on the inauguration plaque of a overhead water tank in Mahanga block. Panda denied these allegations but Jena threatened to disrupt the inauguration ceremony. The Kendrapada MP defied Jena, whose supporters vandalised the plaque and hurled eggs at Panda. The state government ordered an inquiry but nothing much came out of it.
Interestingly, what irked Patnaik most was how Panda was beginning to sound like a BJP leader rather than a BJD one. In fact, ever since Narendra Modi won a decisive mandate in 2014, Panda had been showering lavish praises on the prime minister. He had even been accompanying Modi on his visits abroad and even wrote several articles dissing his own government.
Panda sharpened his attack on his party and government after BJP made significant gains in the Zila Parishad elections. The saffron party achieved a remarkable feat after it increased its tally from 36 in 2012 to 297. Despite the results, BJD remained far ahead of the BJP and the Congress. However, BJP was successful in emerging as the main Opposition party comfortably taking over the position from a beleagured Congress.
With this success, BJP has aggressively begun making inroads in the state and Panda was increasingly being seen as the one speaking the saffron party's language. Thereafter, Odisha TV, owned by Panda, also started portraying BJP as BJD's main challenger. This led to Patnaik removing Panda as BJD's parliamentary party spokesperson.
All this while, there were strong rumors of BJP attempting to poach senior BJD leaders which was highlighted by party MP Tathagata Sathpathy who sounded an alarm after he accused an MP of trying to create a split in the party. Those following the political developments in Odisha immediately knew that Sathpathy was referring to Panda.
In these circumstances, Panda's ouster was a certainty leading to questions whether his ouster will hurt the BJD. However, it is unlikely considering Panda's limited popularity in the state. He is seen as more of a mover and shaker in Delhi's political circle and not so much in his home state. But, BJP will still see him as an asset considering the popularity of OTV in the state which the saffron party would certainly try to use to its advantage in the run up to 2019 General Elections and Assembly polls.
The recent developments in the state are certain to test Patnaik's political acumen which has been tested several times in the past. And on all these occasions, Patnaik emerged victorious. It remains to be seen whether the wily chief minister can brave the saffron wave which would make for a thrilling political contest in the forthcoming elections.