After months of ‘will he, won’t he?, Baijayant Jay Panda, ex-MP of Kendrapara district, Odisha, finally announced his decision to join the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The gestation period for the decision was long and most certainly would have involved a lot of deliberations from his side and from the side of the BJP.
Panda’s popularity on Twitter, his repute as a leader of substance with the national media and his highly publicised fallout with Naveen Patnaik in Odisha made it a well-covered news across the board. The commentary coming from politically enthusiastic netizens beyond Odisha was fast and in the case of BJP supporters, euphoric. A good reason for that could be because Panda is one of the five political figures that they can immediately associate with Odisha.
There could be even fewer recognisable leaders from the state who can hold their own and provide cogent, pointed commentary on issues of national importance. But whether his political moves and association with the BJP would translate to political gains in Odisha, is far from the high pitched commentary on social and national media.
If we try to sum up what Baijayant Panda brings to the table for BJP, it would be erudition and access. By no means is Panda a mass leader in the state and his image is that of an upright, intellectual, erudite leader who is idea-centric and solution-oriented. The general populace would consider him a very worthy representative of Odisha and with his entry, the state BJP gets a very experienced representative on the national stage.
Naveen Patnaik, being the reticent politician that he is, hates the attention of the national media. With almost the whole of the local media being coopted and the national media being fed with sanitised news once in a while, Panda as BJP’s representative will be able to control the narrative-building.
Panda has made a mark for himself with his succinct, well-researched takes on multiple policy prongs including political and economic reforms. For a purported right wing party, Panda also brings a very reasoned take on the economy and national security. He has also been open to question established ‘status quoist’ stands on constitutional debates like the recent Sabarimala and triple talaq verdicts. He is well-spoken, is not a rabble-rouser and is respected across political divides.
Most importantly, he has since long been a Delhi fixture aware of the machinations of the Lutyens elite. He inspires confidence among the people, seems trustworthy and knows his way through the media. These are all assets for the central and the state BJP and with Panda, they get a ‘good man’ to bolster their image. All in all, Panda will become an asset for the central BJP and a national face for the state BJP.
It is not just the national media. Panda’s family also owns the number one local news channel, Odisha Television (OTV) which has remained one of the few media entities which has not been coopted by the Biju Janata Dal (BJD). BJD MPs own multiple newspapers and television news channels in the state and without insinuating any further cooption by BJP, access to OTV would be vital to bring out the chinks in the armour of Naveen Patnaik. Apart from that there is perhaps the critical factor of access to funds in a high stake election, where Panda could prove to be of crucial importance.
Even a few weeks back, there were talks of Panda contesting elections as an independent candidate or through a new party formed with old BJD rebels. In the eventuality that this would have happened, the goodwill that he enjoys as an upright politician would have resulted in some dent for both the BJD and the BJP. While that issue has not been completely addressed, with BJD rebels still in play, some damage could have been mitigated.
Tackling The Vengeance Machine Of Naveen Patnaik
Now, we come to the challenges that Panda could face in his new role. And the biggest among them would be the almost cinematic vindictiveness of the Chief Minister, Naveen Patnaik. The CM is known to nurse a personal grudge against the people he targets and he is not content with just banishing them from the party but almost complete political obliteration.
This remains a hallmark of his personality and mass leaders like Bijoy Mahapatra as well as erstwhile right hand men like Pyari Mohan Mohapatra have seen their political careers being decimated. There is no doubt that he has an unhealthy vindictiveness against Panda which came through when he forbade his party men from attending the final rites of Bansidhar Panda, one of the tallest industrialists of Odisha.
It is also evident in the way that the party has been harassing his wife Jagi Mangat Panda, a leading entrepreneur in the state, and his brother Subhrakant Panda, who leads their family business IMFA. The personal targeting was so intense that it came through in the arrest of commentator Abhijit Iyer Mitra in Odisha. While the reasons for his arrest, were a dime a dozen, the reason behind it was not lost on any political observer of Odisha.
In such a hostile environment, where even his family and his friends have not been spared, Panda has a tall task in converting his seat of Kendrapara to saffron. Without a shred of doubt, he has been an exemplary parliamentarian and MP for his constituents and one of the most involved leaders with the community. The goodwill he enjoys in the district is immense, and most of it comes from the immense hard work that he has put in.
But, Kendrapara has a history with another erstwhile BJD leader and the first victim of Naveen Patnaik’s vengeance politics, which cannot be forgotten. From being the tallest leader in Kendrapara with a huge mass appeal, Bijoy Mohapatra faced the wrath of Naveen Patnaik and since the year 2000 has been kept out of power. The descent of such a mass leader, a four-time MLA from Kendrapara and a founding member of the BJD to near oblivion in his own district is a sign of the hostility that Panda will face in his new role.
It is not that he has not been facing hostilities. He has been subjected to vile physical attacks by goons sponsored by the local leadership. With elections drawing close, it can be expected that Naveen Patnaik will take personal attention in making him lose the seat, just like he did for Bijoy Mohapatra. That will be a huge test of the personal appeal and fortitude of Baijayant Panda.
Navigating The Wily State BJP
While the first challenge comes from the BJD, the second comes from the BJP itself. The state BJP has had a history of drawing in prominent BJD rebels with the hope of capitalising on their mass base. Important names include Bijoy Mohaptra and Dilip Ray, both founding members of the BJD. But due to some strange ineptitude or shrewd political calculation, BJP corners these rebel leaders and pushes them into insignificant roles. Driven by extreme ambition or maybe the calculation of a post-Naveen weakened BJD in the state, rebel BJD leaders are never given the chance to thrive in BJP. This has been a reason why both Ray and Mohapatra have resigned from the party.
Panda lacks the mass base of these leaders but is a much more known face, with well-established credentials of being a suave leader. Other than that he has access to shape the national narrative. So, there is a possibility that he would not meet the same fate as the other two. But with another national leader in play who is also the undisputed number one of the state unit at the moment, Panda has to carefully navigate his relationship with Dharmendra Pradhan. Maybe even reconcile to a smaller role.
The possible dynamics makes one wonder about what the political scenario would have looked like if Baijayant Panda had actually floated his own party in an Odisha where the BJD was in crisis. Could there really have been another central figure for state politics? But that is perhaps too far-fetched to ponder upon now.
For now, Baijayant Panda’s entry into the BJP has provided a certain perception fillip to both the Centre and the state BJP and has given them a leader with an established credential to be a critical voice in shaping the political and policy discourse in the days to come. But, when it comes to electoral politics in the state, there are still many challenges which Panda has to navigate to put all his detractors to rest. The past nine months have seen him take on a new role, touring the state and getting even more deeply connected to his constituents. Perhaps, this will be the election for a new feather to be added to his cap.
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