Odisha: Internal Strife Erupts In BJD Following Election Debacle; Pandian In Dissenters' Crosshairs

Jaideep Mazumdar

Jul 08, 2024, 05:37 PM | Updated 05:37 PM IST

Naveen Patnaik (right) with his blue-eyed boy, V K Pandian
Naveen Patnaik (right) with his blue-eyed boy, V K Pandian
  • BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik doesn't think V K Pandian is to blame for the party's poor poll performances. Many within the party disagree.
  • Even as Biju Janata Dal (BJD) is yet to recover from the shock of its disastrous defeat in the simultaneous Lok Sabha and assembly elections in Odisha, the party is being wracked by dissensions and an ugly blame game over the poll reverses.

    The BJD, which had ruled Odisha since 2000, was ousted from power in the state by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJD could not win a single Lok Sabha seat as well. 

    Among the many reasons for the BJD’s defeat, the two primary ones were acute anti-incumbency and the presence of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer-turned-politician V K Pandian, who was said to have assumed complete control of the state administration and party. 

    The BJP turned the Pandian issue into a highly emotive one during the campaign, hinging it on Odiya ‘asmita’ (pride). Pandian is a Tamil, and the BJP attacked its once-upon-a-time ally, the BJD, for allowing an ‘outsider’ to rule the state. 

    Soon after losing power, BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik absolved Pandian of all blame and praised his long-time confidante for “working diligently.” But that did not stop many within the party from pointing out the obvious: that Pandian was largely responsible for the poll reverses. 

    The murmurs against Pandian, who was said to be Patnaik’s anointed successor and who wielded total power over the state administration and party (BJD), have become louder over the past few days. 

    And that has triggered a concerted pushback from Pandian’s supporters within the party. Pandian had, over the last few years, packed party positions with his own nominees. 

    Pandian and his small coterie of powerful party functionaries, including BJD organisational secretary Pranab Prakash Das, had given party tickets to candidates of their choice. As a result, many newly elected members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) are Pandian supporters. 

    But a number of veteran leaders of the party who had been sidelined by Pandian and Das are now coming out openly against them. Even many who were thought to be Pandian supporters are now turning their backs on him. 

    Former BJD MLA from Choudwar-Cuttack, Pravat Ranjan Biswal, said last week that Pandian and Das were largely responsible for the party’s defeat. Biswal said Pandian and Das had distributed party tickets according to their own whims and fancies. Undeserving candidates were given party tickets, he told Swarajya

    Biswal said he had met Patnaik before the elections and apprised him about the anger among the masses against Pandian. “I had told our party chief (Patnaik) that a lot of anti-incumbency exists on the ground because of Pandian, and people in general are strongly against Pandian. But Naveen babu was misled,” said Biswal. 

    Biswal’s allegations were endorsed by senior BJD leaders Arun Kumar Sahoo and Badri Narayan Patra. Sahoo, a five-time MLA from Nayagarh who was also a minister, said Pandian’s high-handedness and misrule had led to the party’s defeat. 

    Patra, a six-time MLA who was also a minister, is another prominent voice against Pandian. A veteran in the party — he was brought into politics by Biju Patnaik — his voice commands a lot of respect. 

    The latest to air dissent against Pandian is former Paradeep MLA Sambit Routray. He told reporters on 7 July that saboteurs had damaged the party’s poll prospects.

    “There was a well-planned conspiracy from within the party. The entire election exercise of the BJD was deliberately sabotaged from within. The saboteur will be exposed in course of time and the media will come to know about him,” Routray, an influential party leader, told reporters. 

    He said the BJD had done a lot of good work for the progress and development of the state and should not have lost power. Routray cited the defeat of Patnaik in Kantabanji and his narrow victory in Hinjili, which he (Patnaik) had been winning since 2000.

    “Naveen babu has been winning from Hinjili since 2000 by huge margins but could win narrowly this time by a margin of a little over 4,000 votes. A strong leader like him lost from Kantabanji. Without internal sabotage, this could not have happened,” Routray, whose wife Gitanjali contested on the BJD ticket from Paradeep but lost to the BJP nominee, told Swarajya

    Routray and many other senior BJD leaders indicated that Pandian and his coterie were the saboteurs. They said Pandian had misled Patnaik. 

    The raging battles within the party have found expression among BJD corporators of the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC). The BMC is run by the BJD. 

    Corporators Amaresh Jena and Biranchi Narayan Mahasupkar said saboteurs within the party had spoiled the party’s electoral prospects. “A Vibhishan within the party sold out our party and worked actively to defeat the party,” Jena said last week. His target was Pandian. 

    Mahasupkar blamed Bhubaneswar Central MLA Ananta Narayan Jena, who is known to be close to Pandian, and Das for working to scupper the prospects of many other party candidates. Jena won the Bhubaneswar Central seat by a narrow margin of 37 votes. 

    “People within the party are trying to break up the party,” said Mahasupkar. He pointed fingers at not only Ananta Narayan Jena but also former minister Ashok Chandra Panda, who lost the Ekamra-Bhubaneswar assembly seat to the BJP's Babu Singh. 

    The duo (Jena and Panda) hit back at their detractors through their loyalists in the BMC. A group of 24 BJD corporators owing loyalty to Jena and Panda held a press conference late last week to condemn the remarks of Mahasupkar and Amaresh Jena.

    But that triggered more dissension, with a large number of party functionaries coming out in support of Mahasupkar and Amaresh Jena. 

    Senior BJD leader and deputy chief whip Pratap Keshari Deb tried to broker peace and called Mahasupkar and Amaresh Jena to a meeting at his residence, where Das, seven-time Binjharpur MLA Pramilla Mallick, and Bhubaneswar North MLA Susanta Kumar Rout were present. 

    “The meeting turned acrimonious, with Mahasupkar and Jena reiterating their allegations against Pandian and Pranab Prakash Das. They refused to be silenced and said that introspection to identify causes of the electoral defeat and strong action against saboteurs is necessary. They also refused to abide by any gag order,” a senior BJD functionary who was privy to what happened at Deb’s residence told Swarajya

    BJD state secretary Sangram Keshari Paikray has also started blaming Pandian for the defeat. Though he has not come out openly against Pandian, sources in the BJD say he has been encouraging party leaders to lash out at Pandian and his coterie.

    The rising chorus against Pandian and some other top party functionaries like Das — he contested against Dharmendra Pradhan in Sambalpur and lost — has made party cadres and lower-level functionaries despondent.

    Many lower- and middle-level functionaries of the BJD have established contacts with the BJP. Even some senior functionaries are learnt to have approached BJP leaders. 

    Amaresh Jena and Mahasupkar, for instance, attended a blood donation camp organised on the birthday of the BJP's Ekamra MLA Babu Singh on 4 July. Even Paikray attended the event. 

    Singh, when asked if the BJD leaders had expressed their desire to join the BJP, said that a call on who will be inducted into the party will be taken by the state BJP president.

    The Congress is also eyeing disgruntled and disillusioned BJD leaders and cadres who do not want to join the BJP. 

    “We are in touch with a number of BJD leaders who are completely disillusioned with their party. The BJD is in disarray now, and many in that party are realising that the BJD cannot play the role of a strong opposition in the state. Only the Congress can play such a role, and that’s why they want to join the Congress. In fact, I have issued an open invitation to the BJD to merge itself with the Congress,” Koraput Lok Sabha Member of Parliament (MP) Saptagiri Sankar Ulaka, the lone Congress MP from Odisha, told Swarajya

    While Ulaka’s wish for a merger won’t materialise, what’s possible is the migration of some disillusioned BJD functionaries and cadres who are opposed to the BJP into the Congress. 

    However, for a majority of the BJD leaders and workers who are revolting against Pandian and his coterie, the BJP is a much better option than the Congress.

    The Congress is a distant third force in the state, with just 14 MLAs in the 147-member assembly and a steadily declining vote share that now stands at 13.26 per cent.

    BJP state president Manmohan Samal admitted that a number of BJD leaders and functionaries want to join the BJP. “We will exercise due diligence and will take in only those who can strengthen our party,” he said. 

    The disgruntlement and slugfest in the BJD after the poll debacle have become so acute that some of the anger within the party is slowly being directed at Patnaik.

    A few voices within the party are asking why Patnaik has not lived up to his promise of forming a committee to find out the reasons for the debacle and recommend remedial action. 

    Such an exercise, if conducted fairly, would lay the blame on Pandian and his coterie. It is precisely to protect his blue-eyed boy, Pandian, that Patnaik has not initiated the introspection exercise, some disgruntled BJD leaders told Swarajya

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