IN JANUARY 1998, the day the Biju Janata Dal (BJD)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) alliance was announced, Baijayant Panda hosted a lavish dinner in Bhubaneswar for leaders of both parties. Panda was not even officially part of the BJD, but was given the task of roping in reluctant Janata Dal leaders into the newly formed party. Many in Odisha recall that Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik frequented two places in Bhubaneswar. One of them was the home of Panda, whose family was close to his, and the other that of AU Singh Deo, an Odisha politician who was Patnaik’s Doon School mate.
Two decades after that dinner, a letter sent on May 28th by Panda, the BJD’s Kendrapara MP, to Patnaik, a four-time Chief Minister and party supremo, showed how bitterly the two had fallen out. ‘Although things have been going from bad to worse for the past four years, it has plumbed the absolute depths of inhumanity when neither you nor anyone from the BJD turned up to pay their last respects to my father Dr Bansidhar Panda, who as everyone knows was a very close friend, supporter, and associate of Biju uncle for many decades,’ Panda wrote. The letter, in which he announced his resignation from the BJD, hardly raised any eyebrows in political circles. Yet, nobody could pinpoint exactly why, when and where the old friends had turned foes.
“There were indications of a discord over the past three-four years. What is coming out in the media is not all,” says Bijoy Mohapatra, one of the BJD founders who was ousted from the party in 2000 and joined the BJP after trying for a while to make a go of his own party.
Panda, the son of a leading Odia industrialist, had the choice of staying away from the rough and toil of politics. Those close to him recall that in the 1990s, after returning from Michigan Technological University, where he did a dual degree course in Engineering and Management in Communications, Panda was frustrated with the red tape and corruption at home. In 1995, he started assisting Biju Patnaik, whom he still refers to as the “grand old man of Odisha politics”. Patnaik was then in the opposition. Two years later, he passed away, leaving a vacuum filled by his son Naveen Patnaik.
Officially, Panda joined the BJD in early 2000 when he entered the Upper House. The same year Naveen Patnaik led the BJD-BJP alliance to power and became Chief Minister. Sources say for all practical purposes, Panda, whose mother Ila Panda was a Rajya Sabha member from 1992 to 1998 as a member of Biju Patnaik’s JD, worked closely with the BJD’s core founding group. “One really does not know what caused the friction. But, those watching closely agree that Naveen Patnaik is the kind of person who does not like to see anyone in the party growing beyond a point. It’s a one-man show,” says veteran Odia journalist Rajaram Satpathy.
Panda, 18 years Patnaik’s junior, had become active in Delhi circles. He was re-elected to Rajya Sabha in 2006, but in 2009 was given a ticket to fight from Kendrapara, Biju Patnaik’s bastion. He won and was re-elected in 2014. “At some point, Naveen Patnaik started feeling that Panda was promoting his own interests in Delhi. From before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the Chief Minister sensed Panda was getting close to Narendra Modi. After 2014, Patnaik felt that his party MP was more loyal to Modi,” says a political analyst and senior journalist. Two articles written by Panda last year brought the fissures out in the open.
In January this year, Panda was suspended from primary membership of the BJD for allegedly indulging in ‘anti-party activities’. Last May, after he was assaulted with eggs and stones at Mahanga in Kendrapara while inaugurating a drinking water project built with MPLAD funds, Panda alleged BJD members were behind the attack.
All eyes are now on whether Panda will gravitate towards the BJP, which appears to have kept its doors wide open for him. His Twitter profile says ‘1644 hr helicopter pilot; columnist; advntr sports; avid nonfiction reader; Member, Parliament of India, Kendrapara, Odisha.’ One will have to wait and see what else is added on.