After months of being at loggerheads with Odisha chief minister and Biju Janata Dal chief Naveen Patnaik, rebel MP Baijayant Panda finally quit the party on Monday.
Better known as “Jay” Panda, the Lok Sabha member from Kendrapara sent a three-page resignation letter to Patnaik ending his two decades’ association with Biju Janata Dal. He informed Patnaik that he would quit the Lok Sabha after completing the last rites of his father, industrialist Bansidhar Panda, who died on May 22.
Panda’s resignation was expected, more so since he had been suspended from the organisation in January for anti-party activities.
“It was with deep anguish, hurt and sorrow that I have decided to quit the kind of politics into which our BJD has descended,” wrote Panda. “With the BJD and you yourself [Patnaik] having made it abundantly clear that I am unwanted, it is only right to disassociate from it.”
In his letter, the 54-year-old two-time Lok Sabha MP said he had been facing humiliation in the party for some time but the failure of the chief minister and other party colleagues to attend the last rites of this father was the proverbial last straw.
Though Panda’s resignation had been a long time coming, it has nonetheless sparked speculations about his political plans.
Many Biju Janata Dal as well as Bhartiya Janata Party leaders said that Panda was most likely to join the saffron party, considering the fact that he had been heaping praise on Prime Minister Narendra Modi since he came to power at the Centre in 2014. At the same time, Panda has been criticising Patnaik on social media – which caused his downfall in the Biju Janata Dal. Many Biju Janata Dal leaders accuse him of doing the bidding of the BJP while still in BJD.
The moral high ground that Panda has taken has not impressed Biju Janata Dal leaders. They said that “last straw” cited by Panda following his father’s death was merely an attempt to play the victim card.
Panda joined politics after the Biju Janata Dal was formed in 1997 following the death of Naveen Patnaik’s father and former chief minister Biju Patnaik. As the BJD-BJP combine rode to power in Odisha defeating Congress in 2000, Patnaik sent Panda to the Rajya Sabha. In 2006, he was sent to the upper house again. But Panda quit the Rajya Sabha three years later after winning the Kendrapara Lok Sabha seat. He won again in Kendrapara in 2014.
Hailing from the family that owns India’s largest fully integrated ferro alloys company IMFA, the suave Panda has a strong network in Delhi’s political circles, which was an asset for the Biju Janata Dal. Besides, his strength emanated from the fact that the Panda family owns Odisha’s biggest news channel OTV.
If Panda does join the saffron party as is being speculated, his financial clout and family’s TV channel may be an asset for the BJP. But observers are uncertain that he can galvanise grassroots support in favour of the BJP. Morale in the saffron party has been low following its crushing defeat at the hand of the BJD in the bye-election in Bijepur assembly constituency in February.
Though influential, Panda lacks mass appeal. That is the reason why he may not be able to make a dent in the Biju Janata Dal’s support base. It is apparent from the fact that there was no visible protest against his suspension on the ground, even in his own constituency. Biju Janata Dal leaders said that he won from Kendrapara, counted among one of the safest Lok Sabha seats for a BJD candidate in the state, only due to the backing from Naveen Patnaik, whose father had represented the constituency in the past. “Panda was a face of BJD in Delhi as per the wishes of the chief minister,” a BJD leader said. “As he went against the party, he was brought down from his high pedestal.”
Besides, political observers wonder whether Panda will feel comfortable in the Odisha unit of the BJP, which is plagued by internal conflicts. The unit is notorious for marginalising leaders who have left other parties to join it. For instance, Naveen Patnaik’s former bête noire Bijay Mohapatra, a very powerful minister during Biju Patnaik’s reign between 1990 and 1995, has been languishing in the BJP since he joined it. So too have been former Odisha chief minister Giridhar Gamang and former Union minister Dilip Ray. Another former Union minister Braja Kishore Tripathy, who had joined BJP after leaving BJD, quit the national party after being ignored.
The biggest challenge Panda faces at the moment is to stay relevant politically.