“I Will Continue To Push For Reforms While Mulling Over A New Political Path”: Baijayant Panda
Baijayant Panda talks about his fallout with BJD, his concerns for Odisha and how 2019 might play out for the key stakeholders.
Anyone monitoring politics in Odisha is aware of the way in which the acrimony between Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the ex-party MP from Kendrapara, Baijayant Panda, has played out in the past one year. Panda has on record spoken against the interference of the Chief Minister’s secretary, V K Pandian in political matters and has also been vocal about the increasing instances of corruption and goondaism in the party. Biju Janata Dal (BJD) responded by alleging that since Panda was involved in anti-party activities, he was gradually removed from the position of party spokesperson and then suspended from the party. This was a huge price to pay for the dissent of Panda, who is one of the founding members of the party in the state. Readers may be reminded that the BJD was founded in 1997 and Panda has been a Member of Parliament for as long as Naveen Patnaik has been chief minister--since 2000.
Things came to a pass when Panda’s father, eminent industrialist Dr Bansidhar Panda, passed away earlier this week. In a move smacking of pettiness, no representative from the ruling BJD visited the Panda household to pay their last respects to the deceased. The Chief Minister who was a close family friend surprised many with his decision to let political rivalry take over statesmanship. Following this, Panda tendered his resignation to the party president citing the deep hurt, anguish and unhappiness with which he was dissociating from the party. He pointed out to the inhumanity which had permeated the party cadre, which stopped them from paying their last respects to his father, who was one of the pioneering industrialists of Odisha.
I had a long conversation with Panda, a day before the demise of his father and before he had tendered his resignation to the party president. The conversation was around his falling out with the party, politics in Odisha, and the road ahead.
Excerpts from the conversation:
As a four-time MP and as one of the founding members of the party, this acrimony between you and Naveen Patnaik, and your concerns for the party is definitely something recent. At what point did you realise that things within BJD have been changing for the worse?
It was in the last four years that things started to drastically change. For the longest time, I was a very proud member of the BJD. In the last two years of Biju Babu, some ground work was done for the formation of a regional party and I was involved in it. But, the founding of the party was left to Naveen Patnaik. The reason I had joined politics was because of the corruption and the goondaism in Odisha in the 90s. The party took a principled stand against all this and presented a clean alternative, which succeeded in the state.
Over the first decade the CM took the moral high ground on issue after issue and in 14 years, almost 36 ministers were sacked almost at the hint of any corruption. The administration worked efficiently, the police were largely doing their job and the informal clout which politicians often wielded did not work under Naveen Patnaik. That increased the popularity of the CM.
This all changed in the past four to five years after the infamous coup incident in 2012 by Pyari Mohan Mahapatra. There was a change in direction after that and strangely many people who were associated with that rebellion found favour within the party and were treated like royalty. And old allies and loyalists were pushed away. Somewhere around that time, it became evident that a serving bureaucrat in a junior role had started bearing enormous clout. The fact that a junior officer had such an important role in administration was itself contentious and senior officials had also raised concerns over this. While in the earlier days, key administrative positions were held by people with stellar records, but that also gradually began to change.
The extent of the clout that this bureaucrat bore became clear when he started getting involved in ticket distribution in the 2014 elections. I was personally very surprised to see him sitting in a party meeting with the CM on ticket distribution. Subsequently, his power started growing and we started noticing more deviations in the way things were for the past 14 years. People with tainted reputation were appointed in key positions in the state government. Naveen Patnaik was intolerant to corruption earlier, but all that was clearly changing. The chit fund scam and other such scams slowly started getting revealed. That was the turning point.
Were there other members of the BJD who had also expressed concern about this and did you personally raise this issue through official party channels?
There is enormous power that this one individual is wielding. He is not just handling government matters, where even senior officials do not figure, but also deciding party matters. A lot of people were thus afraid to speak up. Unlike what is said now, I had a direct conversation with Naveen Patnaik on this several times. It’s a propaganda that I have washed dirty linen in public. The truth is that I have approached the party president many times on this issue.
I only started speaking of this publicly when the party president at a public rally asked the party to introspect after losing ground in the panchayat elections. It was only after that, that I wrote an article on the need for the party to introspect in an opinion piece, where I pointed out the original strengths of the party, the current weaknesses and even suggested course corrections.
That was followed by a vindictive response, where certain party people were encouraged by this bureaucrat to oppose me. This happened in Mahakalpada and then in Mahanga, where I was physically assaulted with eggs, stones and bricks. Earlier this year, I was suspended after fake allegations and a sham trial. The committee which had been set up to investigate the accusations against me was led by a tainted member who herself had been sacked on corruption charges. And unlike any enquiry that I have ever heard, I was not informed of the charges against me. I was not given a chance to respond and the enquiry was over in 48 hours without involving me. This was a very Stalinist approach that was taken against me.
In that article that you had written, you had specifically spoken about rising instances of goondaism. Since all this was before the physical attacks on you, were there any other instances that you had seen which made you flag the issue?
If you see, the physical attacks on me which happened later, went on to prove the point that I had made earlier. Now gradually, the law and order breakdown in Odisha is coming to light. Let me give you a statistic. The latest figures by National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that between 2014 and 16, the country-wide rise in reported crimes against minors is 19 per cent. In Odisha, the rise is 50 per cent. People are committing these crimes with impunity and the Stalinist approach to governance in the past few years is a key reason behind this. Only if you keep tainted and corrupt officers in key positions, can you use them to exercise control on others. And the ‘third floor’ is doing that which is vitiating the police procedure by subjecting the police to undue political pressure. It is no surprise to anyone who monitors Odisha that there is such a huge surge in crimes against minors.
A statement by the CM in the assembly and even anecdotal media reports shows around four rapes of minors being reported every single day in Odisha. We hear a national outcry over Kathua and Unnao, which is absolutely necessary, but that kind of response to atrocities in Odisha is missing. That is unfortunate.
In the light of the statistics that you gave, how would you assess the response of the government to the Kunduli rape case, where a minor was raped, and due to lack of government action, committed suicide?
Kunduli is emblematic of the problem that I pointed out. Here you had a poor, tribal girl who alleged that she had been raped by people in uniform. But it was hushed up and the administration claimed that there was no evidence of rape. The leak of an interim forensic report showed that there was evidence of rape but a new report after that again deleted that evidence. So, all this was very bizarre. And what again demonstrated the Stalinist approach of the government was that the journalists who had broken the story about the report were grilled by the crime branch about the source of their information. There are numerous Supreme Court judgments, which indicate that it is not mandatory for journalists to reveal their sources, yet the government continued to harass them.
Let us talk a little bit about the recent crisis at Indian Metals and Ferro Alloys Limited (IMFA), which a lot of our readers might not be aware of. IMFA is your family-run business, which has recently come under attack by a group of dissenters and you have claimed on record that this is political vendetta.
Ours is a well-known business family going back six decades, but you will not find any bureaucrat or politician at the state or the national level who can ever say that Jay Panda has approached us for a favour for his business. I have kept more than an arm’s length from my family business and I have worked very hard to ensure that I am different from many other MPs who have family businesses.
It is very obvious to everybody that this was again a part of that Stalinist approach to attack every entity associated with my family to teach me a lesson. Political leaders across the spectrum and even academics and some journalists have gone on record and said that it reeks of political vendetta. At IMFA Therubali, not only the plant, but the employee quarters with women and children inside, was gheraoed for 18 days. Normally gheraos are done by locals or employees who have some grouse but here the people involved in the agitation were not even locals. They were from the Niyamgiri region which is about 200 kilometres away and were imported here.
This cynicism is very dangerous for Odisha as we have a terrible track record on industries in India. The single largest investment proposal in the history of India was POSCO and the government was not able to implement that. And this is just one example. So, the impression is clearly that you are not able to bring in more investment and now you are trying to shut down the industries that are already there.
The sad story is that there are lakhs of Odisas in blue collar jobs, who have migrated outside the state, and are living in deplorable conditions and facing routine exploitation. People even risk going to conflict zones just because there are no jobs in the state. In such a situation, this political vendetta against industries does immense damage. Political vendetta is targeted against me but should not extend to my family. And certainly not to the thousands of families who are dependent on this company for their lives and livelihoods. This is like mafia.
The leader of this agitation Jitu Jakasika was the one who had spoken to Rahul Gandhi earlier during this Niyamgiri solidarity campaign. But, some BJP leaders have spoken on record that the new Rajya Sabha MP from BJD, Achyuta Samanta who runs the massive Kalinga Institute group is the one who had manoeuvred this crisis. Do you also hold the same view?
Look, the circumstantial evidence certainly points towards the involvement of this MP who miraculously went to the Rajya Sabha within six hours of joining the party. This agitator belongs to the institute run by the MP, he is also affiliated to the government. The evidence is out there and there is no reason for me to further get into this debate.
The channel run by this particular MP has also been at the forefront of multiple reports saying that the agitation was because of non-payment of dues and inadequate corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding for development activities in the area. How would you respond to that?
IMFA had put up the statistics regarding this. Under CSR norms, 2 per cent of the company profits need to be allocated for peripheral development activities. The lowest that IMFA has spent on CSR is any year is 4 per cent and the highest was nearly 9 per cent. So, IMFA has done far beyond what is required and the people in the locality will vouch for the development of the region in the past six decades.
Now let us move a little to the larger political picture. One of the big campaign statements by the BJP in the run up to the 2014 election was bridging the divide between the East and the West with regard to the pace of development. Do you think after four years, the central government has been able to ensure that, and how would you rate their performance based on what has been delivered to Odisha?
In the larger context, the East and the North East of India have been traditionally neglected and have lagged behind. Under this government, there have been some phenomenal allocations for the North East and it has seen some great progress in terms of infrastructure. This is some genuine ‘put your money where your mouth is’ kind of work.
In the past, one of the strong concerns that MPs from Odisha had was about the lower than average rail density in the state and how the centre was not giving it due attention. The first railway budget that was presented by Suresh Prabhu had finally given a significant jump to Odisha. For the very first time, the Naveen Patnaik on record thanked the Railway Minister for meeting the expectations of the state, which had never happened under previous governments. This is just one indication which shows the seriousness of the Centre towards Odisha.
But, I have had other Union Ministers telling me that they are willing to allocate much more for crucial activities, but there is no follow up or eagerness by the state government to ensure that. Now, this can be traced to the famous political theme that every Odia knows as ‘kendra abahela’ (neglect by the central government). Traditionally, this has been true but under the current dispensation, there are way more opportunities, which the state government has not adequately taken advantage of.
One of the first measures by the central government had been to ensure greater devolution of funds and free tied funds, which puts more power in the hands of the states. In the same spirit, the Prime Minister has repeatedly stressed on competitive and cooperative federalism. As a state MP, how do you assess the performance of the government on these fronts?
After the implementation of the recommendation of the 14th Finance Commission, there was a shift of more tax revenue to the states which was a huge and welcome change. Over the past 30 years, we became an over centralised economy with hundreds of government schemes for every single thing. This cookie cutter approach was not feasible and we had been demanding devolution of funds since a long time. Even PM Narendra Modi as a chief minister had also demanded it. But, the arithmetic is simple. You cannot both give more and have more. The strange thing is though the states are receiving more funds in an untied fashion, they still want the central schemes to continue. That is not possible. It is good that the central government has cut down on many schemes, many of which were pushed by NGOs for their own purposes.
Odisha, of course, has benefitted from a sharp increase in railway fund allocations and mining royalty. At the same time, there are clashes like on the Mahanadi issue. I think there has to be a via media where we can continue to resolve issues while gaining from the new economic opportunities through better engagement with the state.
BJD has repeatedly bucked the anti-incumbency trend and many have not been able to point a finger at exactly what is making it tick. In the run up to 2019, what do you think has worked for BJD and what could be their undoing?
When the BJD first formed the government in Odisha, people considered it rickety and many thought that Naveen Patnaik would not last. We had to work hard to bolster the image of the party, and the CM also took bold steps to tackle corruption at that point. A decade or so spent on bolstering Brand Naveen is what works in the present day also. While at the lower level, party candidates have lost credibility due to corruption and goondaism, Brand Naveen remains the BJD’s single biggest strength. At the same time, there is also a fatigue creeping in and people are seeing increased instances of political violence and law and order breakdown. The Congress has collapsed completely in Odisha and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has taken up the number two space. But, that does not automatically translate into the people seeing a viable alternative in the opposition.
Though the Congress has collapsed, it is surprisingly the BJD which is still taking up the vote share rather than the BJP in the state. So, the BJD is effectively continuing to gain. Why do you think that is happening?
Last year in the panchayat elections, the BJP actually managed to increase its presence by eating into both the Congress and the BJD vote share. But, recently in the Bijepur bye-polls, it was again the BJD which gained from the Congress collapse. Having said this, a by-election cannot be an indication of the larger picture. But, it has to be said that despite four terms, the BJD still has the hunger and the drive to succeed, which both the BJP and the Congress are not able to match. Along with that, the BJD has the advantage of knowing the system inside out and people working inside the administration for it. It is breaking constitutional norms where people sitting inside the Chief Minister’s Office are controlling politics. These are not legal advantages, but are advantages nevertheless. And because these advantages are 24X7, the BJD is also managing to pick up good candidates from the Congress.
So, do you still see advantage BJD in Odisha?
A week is a long time in politics and we have months to go for the elections. If a credible alternative is presented to the 18 years of BJD, then it will certainly gain traction. People keep saying that Odisha has developed under the BJD and that is not entirely wrong. But, if you see on key indices, Odisha continues languishing at the bottom of the table. Although there has been a reduction in poverty, Odisha still ranks in the bottom two. It is the same with indicators like access to primary education and access to primary health care. In some cases it has gone up from last to second last and in some from second last to third last. There could be a reaction to this in the state. But, as of now we have to wait and see how the next few months play out.
Post Karnataka, the formation of an anti-BJP front with Congress and regional parties is almost a certainty. What does your political instinct tell you about the stand that the BJD could take in this new development?
In our political set up, a 33 per cent vote share is enough for a party to sweep elections. We saw that with the BJP in 2014 also. BJD till now has maintained an equidistant approach from both Congress and BJP. My instinct tells me that the BJD is not going to change this equidistant approach, until after the elections. And then if there is the possibility of an opportunistic alliance, it could go with either of the formations.
And finally, where do you see your political career going from here on?
I have been suspended from the party after a kangaroo court ruling and Stalinist approaches. But, I had not joined politics for the usual motives. I think I have been able to create a niche for myself by pushing the envelope in the issues of reforms that India ought to have and to initiate dialogues to set the agenda on that front. I have not decided on the path that I will take after this and I am mulling it over. And I am praying to Lord Jagannath for the wisdom to make the right choice.
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