As the flamboyant former Biju Janata Dal leader Baijayanta “Jay” Panda attempts to distance himself from a controversy sparked by a satirical video posted on social media by a defence analyst to whom he had played host, political observers in his home state of Odisha say that the kerfuffle comes at a time when the businessman-politician’s ambitions are hanging in mid-air.
Panda was suspended from the Biju Janata Dal early this year for carrying out “anti-party activities” and he resigned from his Kendrapara Lok Sabha seat in May. Many had expected him to join the Bharatiya Janata Party but this has not happened so far. As a result, he find himself a nowhere man, observers say.
The politician’s latest controversy began on to build on Monday, when a helicopter owned by his family company IMFA was seized by the authorities, allegedly for flying too low over the eco-sensitive Chilika lake, Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon. Panda accused the state government of fabricating charges against him in order to settle political scores.
Even as the Panda family-owned OTV channel criticised the Biju Janata Dal government’s “vindictive” action, a twist in the tale left Panda embarrassed – and cornered. A video on Twitter by one of two guests from Delhi who rode with Panda in the helicopter have kicked off a row in Odisha. The intensity of protests against the guest, a defence analyst named Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, forced Panda to distance himself from his remarks.
On Thursday, Iyer-Mitra was arrested in New Delhi by the Odisha police for allegedly uttering obscene words in a public place, giving provocation with intent to cause a riot and outraging the religious feelings of people with his “malicious” act. The arrest was carried out on the basis of FIRs lodged in the Konark police station and Saheed Nagar police station in Bhubaneswar. Within hours, Iyer-Mitra was granted conditional bail by a Delhi court. Meanwhile, following hours of heated debate on Iyer-Mitra’s alleged attack on Odisha’s culture through social media, the state assembly formed a house committee headed by the leader of the opposition and senior Congress leader Narasingha Mishra to investigate the matter.
The trip that is now under scrutiny occured on September 15, when Panda took Iyer-Mitra and a journalist from The Times of India named Aarti Tikoo Singh on a trip to Kendrapara, the constituency he represented till his resignation from the Lok Sabha. En route, Panda took them on a joyride to Chilika. Local newspapers claimed that the helicopter, which was piloted by Panda, tried to land on an unauthorised area near the lake. After this, Panda gave his guests an aerial view of the Puri and Konark temple.
The next day, Iyer-Mitra visited the Konarak temple and tweeted a video of himself describing the carvings at the site in language that some people claimed to have found offensive. On his part, Iyer-Mitra said the video was intended to be satirical.
As the protest grew louder, Panda distanced himself from Iyer-Mitra’s comments. In a video posted on Facebook, Panda said: “Let me make it clear that I do not approve of the sarcasm or parody posted by him. It is condemnable. I feel we should be sensitive towards our culture, tradition and religious places, and there should not be any comedy or parody on them.”
Many people in Odisha, including the leaders of all the three major parties – the Biju Janata Dal, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party – claimed that Iyer-Mitra’s comments were abrasive and crass. But most said that arresting him for the video was going too far. “The fellow [Iyer-Mitra] has been caught between the crossfire between Patnaik and Panda,” said a politician who has good equations with both Patnaik and Panda. “But at the same time, Panda should have avoided taking along a loudmouth like him, especially when he himself is fighting for his political existence.”
Though Panda is well educated, erudite, rich and influential, his main problem is that he lacks grassroots support, observers say. Biju Janata Dal leaders claim that Panda owes his prominence in politics to party chief Naveen Patnaik, who allowed him to run from Kendrapara, the party’s safest Lok Sabha seat. It was Patnaik who made Panda the party’s face in Delhi. “But his proximity to BJP leaders, praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and at the same time criticising his own party made Patnaik suspicious of his intention,” a Biju Janata Dal leader said.
After his ouster from the Biju Janata Party, many were expecting Panda to join the BJP. But that has not happened so far, probably because of the BJP’s internal dynamics. “There are several chief ministerial aspirants in BJP in case it comes to power in Odisha,” said a BJP leader. “Why would they like another from outside?”
In the meanwhile, the equation between the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal has also changed following the Odisha party’s decision to offer support to the BJP government during the election for the deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha in August and also to abstain from the no-confidence against the Modi government a month earlier. After this, said BJP leaders, the party’s central leadership has asked the leaders in Odisha to tone down their attacks on Patnaik and his government. These developments have left Panda in the lurch.
Political observers feel that after he was expelled from the Biju Janata Dal, Panda has lost a huge opportunity to create his own political space. With age, funds and Odisha’s biggest news channel on his side, he could have toured the state extensively, playing the victim card. “But he did not do that basically because he is not at all a political person but a businessman afraid of taking political risks,” a Biju Janata Dal leader said.
Finding himself in wilderness, Panda has few weapons left at this disposal and has been reduced to attacking Patnaik and the Biju Janata Dal on social media. The helicopter episode, compounded by Iyer-Mitra’s video, won’t do Panda’s ambitions much good.