Jay Panda’s Removal a Strategic Move by Patnaik to ‘Declutter’
Naveen Patnaik (L) and Baijayant Panda (R). Image used for representational purposes.
Naveen Patnaik (L) and Baijayant Panda (R). Image used for representational purposes.(Photo: The Quint)

Jay Panda’s Removal a Strategic Move by Patnaik to ‘Declutter’

A few weeks ago, Biju Janata Dal (BJD), the ruling party of Odisha, celebrated its 20th foundation day and with that, the unchallenged leadership of Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, who has had a surprising impact on Odisha’s political life for the last 18 years.

The BJD and Patnaik have been marching on the road to never-ending victory since 1997 and, the upcoming 2019 assembly election does not seem like it’ll be a tough one. 

Also Read : Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik Suspends MP Bijayant ‘Jay’ Panda From BJD

Panda’s Suspension Just a Matter of Time

In the last 20 years, Patnaik has established his leadership in a distinct manner, deviating from the norm. As is popularly believed, Patnaik was a reluctant politician initially and after being ‘forced’ to join politics, he continues to remain a political loner.

He has remained Odisha’s most popular political leader, despite being an atypical Indian politician. Neither is Patnaik a great orator, nor does he have the ability to speak the native tongue of the people of Odisha — but he manages to lead his party to victory in every election with an impressive margin.

One can hardly see him interacting with the local media or making frequent public appearances. In fact, one can say he is a true political wonder, who has left politicians scratching their heads in their attempt to decode the formula behind his political success.

However, before the 2019 election, Patnaik is faced with a new challenge, that too from within his party. His rival is none other than his one-time confidante Baijayant Jay Panda. For the last few years, Panda and Patnaik have been engaged in a ‘cold war’, culminating in Panda’s suspension from the BJD about 10 days ago. Panda’s suspension was inevitable.

After the 2014 general elections, Panda started shifting his ideological loyalty to Modi and the Sangha Parivar, thus, going against BJD’s stated position of maintaining ‘equidistance’ from both the UPA and NDA governments.

Also Read : BJD’s War Within Escalates as Party MP Jay Panda Targets Naveen

Panda’s ‘Jet-Setting’ Life & BJP Link

In his new avatar as a columnist, Panda has generously praised many policy decisions of the Modi government and is often seen hobnobbing with the right wing ‘elites’ in Delhi. Such was his association with the right wing camp that a journalist close to the Sangh Parivar once suggested on Twitter that PM Modi should appoint Panda to a Cabinet position. In November 2017 at a Columbia University event, renowned economist Professor Jagdish Bhagwati said:

Many of us hope that one day you (Panda) will be the Indian Prime Minister. He (Jay Panda) is an amazingly competent man, taking great interest in the issues of the day.

While Panda’s persona as a ‘jet-setting’ politician and his elitist approach has drawn much criticism from within his party in Odisha, he is thought to have been more successful in New Delhi.

Basically, back home in Odisha he is largely seen as a corporate biggie who has no connection with ground realities.

In his constituency of Kendrapara, workers and local representatives had complained against Panda’s ‘high flying’ lifestyle and there was also a sense of unease among BJD’s inner circle about Panda’s growing closeness with the BJP.

Also Read : As BJD Celebrates 20 Years, BJP Scales Down Ambitions in Odisha

Naveen’s Calculated Move

In the meantime, there are two sets of reactions to Panda’s suspension in Odisha’s political circles. Those familiar with Patnaik’s politics are certain of Panda’s limited impact as a politician in the state.

Panda, known for his political activism only within the realm of the English-speaking media and social media, does not have mass appeal, and one can say with certainty that his impact as a politician is unlikely to go beyond his constituency’s limits.

Panda’s constituency of Kendrapara was the home turf of late Chief Minister Biju Patnaik. The voters of Kendrapara continue to respect Biju Babu and his legacy. On that count, it is easy to see that Panda was given the ‘safest’ constituency to sail smoothly in 2014. After his suspension, however, there seems to be no visible support for him from the party cadres from his home turf.

That being said, Panda’s political bargaining power as the promoter of OTV, Odisha’s number one TV channel, may give him an advantage.

As it is well-known that Panda has a steady social media following, a strong PR team has been roped in by the Naveen Patnaik camp to do ‘damage control’ as and when necessary.

Patnaik is very clear in his goal to smoothly sail through the 2019 elections, and for that to happen, he will not tolerate anything that comes in the way of the party’s prospects.

To strengthen the party, Patnaik has had to 'de-clutter’ – and removing Panda was part of that mission, according to political observers of the state. The BJD camp has been clear in its goal to attack Panda’s ‘businessman’ image, and in particular, has targeted his role as Vice-Chairman of the company Indian Metals & Ferro Alloys Ltd (IMFA).

Also Read : BJD MPs Satpathy & Panda Spar Over BJP ‘Trying to Split the Party’

Panda’s Indirect ‘War’ on BJD

Meanwhile, Panda’s strategy to counter BJD’s allegations against him appear to be calculated, and he does not seem to be in ‘attack mode’. Panda is yet to say a word against his party boss Naveen Patnaik. Instead of targeting Patnaik directly, Panda has been attacking the Chief Minister’s Office.

Panda has been seen attacking the ‘third floor’ (the place from where CM Naveen Patnaik operates in Odisha secretariat) and a certain ‘Tamil officer’ who allegedly ‘conspired’ to have him removed from the party. Even after his suspension, Panda did not criticise Naveen Patnaik or the BJD, but blamed the ‘IAS officer now controlling the party’.

Perhaps Panda believes that attacking Patnaik may backfire due to the latter’s popularity, so he is taking an indirect route to upset the CM. Panda has openly rebuked one of the most powerful secretaries of the CMO. But the people understand only too well that a bureaucrat cannot counter Panda’s political attack, and using an IAS officer for settling a political score is indeed childish.

(The author is a Bhubaneshwar-based journalist and writer. He can be reached at @MishraKedar1. This is a blog and the views above are personal. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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