He is rich, young, suave, highly educated and articulate. Till recently he was one of the most prominent leaders of Odisha’s ruling Biju Janata Dal and its face in New Delhi’s political circles.
However, Baijayant Panda – also known as Jay Panda – is now a persona non grata in the BJD, headed by Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik. On Wednesday, Patnaik suspended the 54-year-old Lok Sabha MP from Kendrapara from BJD for alleged anti-party activities – seven months after he was divested of the charge of spokesperson of the parliamentary party.
The suspension notice was served on Panda after two senior party leaders assigned to probe allegations by several party workers from his constituency over the week against his alleged anti-party activities submitted their reports to Patnaik earlier in the day.
Panda had been suspended from the primary membership of the party on disciplinary grounds, said senior minister and BJD vice president Surjya Narayan Patro in a statement. Patro alleged that Panda wanted to be the chairman of the Standing Committee on Finance in Lok Sabha through lobbying though the BJD being the fourth largest party might not have been eligible for it. The party did not allow it because of the apprehension of conflict of interest considering that he was the vice chairman of the family owned IMFA group drawing annual salary of over a crore, Patro alleged. “After this, Panda has been directly or indirectly indulging in activities aimed at weakening the BJD, whether it is in Parliament, state, constituency or media space – no opportunity was missed by Panda to criticise the BJD and eulogise the opposition,” Patro added.
Taking to Twitter and Facebook, Panda said he was “shocked” by the suspension. “I am very, very sad that party president Naveen Patnaik did not see through the conspiracy against me by a coterie led by an IAS officer now controlling the party. I vehemently deny the allegations against me, they are entirely false and baseless,” Panda wrote on Facebook after his suspension. He seemed to be referring to the Indian Administrative Service officer V Karthikeyan Pandian, who happens to be the chief minister’s private secretary
The action against Panda however was anything but unexpected. It was waiting to happen as he had been critical of the BJD and Patnaik on social media since the Modi government came to power at the Centre in 2014. What added to the discomfiture of the BJD often was his praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his policies while denigrating his own party.
Panda routinely clarified that what he was doing was for the betterment of the BJD but Patnaik had obviously taken note of Panda’s criticism and a process had started to isolate him and prepare ground for his ouster.
Not long back, both Patnaik and Panda used to share a warm relationship. Even their families are known to have close ties.
Though Panda’s father Bansidhar Panda – who founded IMFA, India’s largest fully integrated ferro alloys makers – was never in politics, he had been a close aide of Biju Patnaik, former Odisha chief minister and Naveen Patnaik’s father. The senior Panda’s mother Ila Panda was a Rajya Sabha member of Janata Dal, headed in Odisha by the senior Patnaik, from 1992 to 1998.
When Naveen Patnaik founded the BJD in 1997 following the death of Biju Patnaik, Baijayant Panda too joined the party. After the BJD-BJP combine came to power in Odisha in 2000, Patnaik sent Panda to Rajya Sabha. He was sent to the upper house again in 2006, but he had to leave it three years later after winning Kendrapara Lok Sabha seat, which used to be represented by Biju Patnaik. He won from Kendrapada again in 2014.
Apart from wealth and family ties with Patnaiks, Panda’s importance in the BJD stemmed from two other factors – his ownership of Odisha’s biggest news channel OTV and his efficient network in New Delhi’s political circles. If Patnaik has emerged as the undisputed leader of Odisha and ruled it for over 17 years, OTV may claim some credit. The channel indeed played a role in contributing to enhancing Patnaik’s persona when he snapped ties with coalition partner BJP before 2009 general elections following anti-Christian riots triggered by the murder of Hindu monk Swami Lakshmanananda in Kandhamal district a year before. It also stood by Patnaik when his mentor and second most powerful leader in BJD, Pyarimohan Mahapatra, turned his challenger.
The relations between Patnaik and Panda started straining post 2014 general elections.
After the BJP assumed power at the Centre, the party sharpened its focus on making inroads into Odisha. On the other hand, the Central Bureau of Investigation was investigating several BJD leaders for their alleged involvement in chit fund scam.
At such times, Panda’s praising BJP leaders, especially Modi, on social media and in his columns in national papers made Patnaik wary of his intentions. Panda’s criticism became sharper after the BJP did well in zilla parishad elections in February last year when the BJP increased its tally from just 36 in 2012 to 297.
Though BJD was comfortably ahead of BJP and Congress, the main opposition party, in zilla parishad and maintained its monopoly over the entire three-tier panchayati raj polls, the BJP went on an overdrive to build a perception that it had arrived as the main challenger to the ruling party in the local media. OTV contributed hugely to that perception, while Panda too stepped up his praise of Modi and BJP, and criticism of BJD’s internal affairs under Patnaik. As a result, Patnaik removed Panda from the post of the BJD parliamentary party spokesperson in May 2017. Subsequently, the Odisha government followed up with shutting down two mines of the IMFA group for pollution norms.
From the beginning of 2017 till the first half of the year, the BJD was under tremendous political pressure. Political circles were abuzz with speculations of the BJP trying to use a few BJD leaders to engineer a vertical split in the party. Indeed, BJD MP and editor of large circulated Odia daily Dharitri Tathagat Satapathy dropped a bombshell ahead of the BJP’s national executive in April 2017, claiming that the BJP was trying to engineer a split in the BJD parliamentary party and state assembly. “BJP hard at work to divide @BJD_Odisha in Parliament, may be even in assembly. They want AIADMK type split,” his Twitter handle, @SatpathyLive tweeted on March 27 last year.
“They want to take away @BJD_Odisha’s party name & symbol. Rumors afloat that only one MP will swing this deal for them. Ha!” Satpathy said in another tweet, pointing the finger of suspicion at Panda.
Panda’s ouster was imminent. Patnaik had decided to do away with Panda after overcoming the political crisis by reorganising the party apparatus and conducting the biggest reshuffle in his ministry.
“The BJD had no alternative but to remove Panda, who was trying to position himself as a natural ally of the RSS/ BJP elite through his opinions in leading national newspapers and comments on social media,” said Kedar Mishra, a Bhubaneswar based columnist and political analyst.
Will Panda’s marginalisation in BJD weaken the party? Most BJD leaders feel it is unlikely. Admittedly, Panda has created an aura for himself in Delhi by mingling with diplomatic community and intellectual circles, but he lacks grassroots support base in Odisha. Despite his repeated criticism of BJD, no party leader was seen to be siding with him. “He’s no Himanta Biswa Sarma (Assam’s powerful minister who was drafted to BJP from the Congress) having grips over grassroots to make a difference,” said a leader.
However, Panda still has OTV with him. The resourcefulness of Odisha’s biggest news channel and Panda will be on test till 2019.