The challenger might be enjoying a surge in popularity… a week is a long time in politics,” British Prime Minister Harold Wilson had famously said in 1964. Nothing can ring truer for Odisha politics at the moment with September providing the excitable twists and turns and keeping political players on the edge.
The month started with senior BJD leader and former minister Damodar Rout raising the hackles of the Naveen Patnaik Government by raking up serious corruption allegations coupled with daily outbursts against the party. The seven-time MLA from Pardip had been sidelined by party supremo Naveen who sacked him from the council of ministers as well as BJD vice-president’s post in December last year. But this sudden eruption on his part appeared as if he was desperately soliciting action against himself. As expected, the axe fell quickly and Rout joined the long list of political heavyweights like Bijay Mohapatra, Dilip Ray, late Nalinikanta Mohanty, Prafulla Ghadei and most recently Baijayant Panda who were unceremoniously shown the door from the party by Naveen.
However, the veteran did not appear to be someone who would quietly fade into the sunset. His corruption allegations were already causing a stir in the state. With the Assembly in session, the Opposition latched on to Rout’s allegations of the sapling scam along with financial irregularities in the Orissa State Cooperative Milk Producers’ Federation and Odisha State Cooperative Bank, and tried to put the government on the back foot.
Speculations of Dama’s (as he is popularly known) plans to bring together all the senior leaders and Biju Patnaik loyalists, who had been removed by Naveen, and forge a political front to challenge the BJD also gained momentum. Dama’s meeting with Baijayant, who quit the party in May this year, gave further credence to it. The buzz was that he was in contact with leaders like Bijay Mohapatra, Dilip Ray, former minister Prafulla Ghadai, former Union minister Braja Kishore Tripathy, etc., and a move to give shape to a new regional political outfit was in the offing.
Despite summarily dismissing the possibility of Dama being a potential challenger to Naveen or the BJD, there was a sense of discomfort within the party over the former’s propensity to rake up controversies. And then Baijayant Panda happened! The former MP from Kendrapara was in the eye of a controversy over allegedly flying his chopper “dangerously low” over Chilika lagoon violating the Aircraft Rules – charges that have been vehemently denied by Panda. Even as the police lost no time in seizing the helicopter and registering cases against Panda and his two co-passengers, the haste shown in the action began to be questioned.
Panda, while protesting his innocence on the issue, seized the opportunity and resorted to victimhood posturing. And then, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra came into the picture. The strategic affairs writer was incidentally flown around the Chilika-Puri-Konark stretch on a sightseeing helicopter sortie by Panda but stirred the hornet’s nest when he posted a video and tweets poking fun at the Sun Temple in Konark.
As it sparked statewide outrage, political parties came together in a rare show of unity in not only condemning Iyer-Mitra but also going further to move a privilege motion against him in the Assembly, initiated by none other than Leader of Opposition Narasingha Mishra. Iyer-Mitra may have had no intention of being condescending towards Odias and their religious symbols or beliefs, but definitely crossed the line to offend sentiments. Once the voice of protests across different platforms reached a crescendo, he was arrested by Odisha police in Delhi and released on bail.
As things stand, a House Committee has been formed to probe Iyer-Mitra’s remarks against Odisha and Odias and there are plenty more fireworks in store. But the developments in recent days must have Naveen Patnaik and his government smiling. For, Abhijit has helped neutralise two big headaches for Naveen – the Dama flare-up has been doused and consigned to oblivion while Baijayant by virtue of being his host has been besmirched with the “unholy” association. To complete Wilson’s statement, there’s still time before the elections. And, Naveen’s apple-cart is steady.
Deputy Resident Editor, Odisha