Odisha politics rarely gets place in national news. The last time this happened was in January when Odisha Chief Minister and BJD party chief Naveen Patnaik had suspended Baijayant Panda from his party.
Nearly eight months on, Odisha politics is back in the news again in Delhi after the state government seized Baijayant Panda’s helicopter. If anyone follows only media reports originating from Delhi, they will certainly get an impression that Baijayant Panda, who is known as ‘Jay’ in Delhi’s social circle is a heavyweight in Odisha politics.
But, those who understand Odisha politics know it very well that Jay Panda’s political life is nothing but a gift from his one-time friend Naveen Patnaik. Now that he has been thrown out of Naveen’s party, Jay Panda, as I had earlier described him immediately after his suspension, has been reduced to being just a ‘twitter tiger’ in Odisha Politics.
Jay Panda’s fallout with Chief Minister Patnaik has pushed him into political oblivion of sorts. BJP’s internal politics in Odisha does not allow him to join the saffron party, though he enjoys a good camaraderie with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
BJP President Amit Shah’s favourite in the state is Dharmendra Pradhan and his ambition to be the sole face of the party in the next assembly elections is the major roadblock for Panda’s entry. In the absence of Naveen’s blessings, it is very unlikely that Jay Panda can even be elected as a village sarpanch, let alone being re-elected from his Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency.
If he has anything of substance remaining in Odisha politics, it is his wife-run private TV channel, Odisha TV. So, Jay Panda is working overtime to remain relevant in Delhi power circle at least. If nothing else, it is critical for the survival of his family-run companies, which are among India’s major bank defaulters as well.
For over a decade now, Jay Panda has maintained a larger-than-life image in Delhi. He regularly appears on national televisions and even his Op-eds in the newspapers have become the topics for prime time debates.
A senior journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh and a right-wing media commentator Abhijit Iyer-Mitra from Delhi were recently taken for a visit to Odisha on 15 September 2019. As their tweets suggested, it was most likely their first ever visit of an extremely underrated but one of the most beautiful states in India.
Before taking Tikoo Singh and Iyer-Mitra for a short visit to his constituency in his family-owned company helicopter, pilot Jay Panda took a detour for a joy ride with his guests to ecologically sensitive and India’s largest coastal saltwater body, Chilika Lake. There are reports that he allegedly tried unsuccessfully to land on an unauthorised area close to Chilika Lake or at least flew very close to a populated ground.
The Chilika Lake has become a political football between the central government and the state government recently. As a pre-election gimmick, the BJP government of the Centre wanted the seaplanes to land on the Chilika, but the BJD government in the state rejected that plan. So, when Jay Panda’s helicopter flew close to the surface over Chilika Lake, the rumour of a seaplane landing started spreading and Naveen Patnaik’s government, which was looking for an opportunity to put Panda in his place, grabbed it gleefully.
Jay Panda was accused of flying his chopper illegally inside Odisha’s Satkosia Wildlife Sanctuary in 2011; Patnaik had overlooked it then, but not this time. His police moved in with lightning speed and seized the helicopter before issuing summons to Jay Panda and his two guests from Delhi to appear for questioning.
As if Chilika trip was not bad enough, Jay Panda took his guests in his helicopter to show them the Jagannath temple in Puri and Sun Temple in Konark. The rules are not very clear about the distance a helicopter needs to maintain over these highly fragile monuments. Thus, this part of the trip would not have been an issue. But, one of Jay Panda’s guests, Abhijit Iyer-Mitra tweeted a couple of highly controversial video messages. One was a short video while flying over the Jagannath temple and another one on the erotic sculptures of the Konark temple.
Odisha 9: my special message to you from the Konark temple expressing my utter disgust at this monumental conspiracy against the Hindu Civilisation pic.twitter.com/wJeqZPHRDk
— Abhijit Iyer-Mitra (@Iyervval) September 16, 2018
The video message in the Konark temple, which he had posted on social media has become extremely controversial. Though he pretends to be funny and sarcastic, but the language used in the video is extremely vulgar and very offensive to Odia sensibilities. That has given enough reason for the Congress and BJD in Odisha to demand legal actions against Iyer-Mitra.
While Aarti Tikoo Singh is trying to keep a relatively low profile to ride over the storm, created by the Jay Panda-sponsored trip to Odisha, the right-wing commentator Iyer-Mitra seems to be trying to cash in as much publicity from his new-found notoriety.
His series of abusive tweets and comments, calling his critics ‘purchased presstitutes & paid outragers’ have infuriated politicians and media in Odisha further and there is a growing demand for legal action against him and his host. His perceived Bengali origin has revived the age-old Odia-Bengali divide. Jay Panda has tried to distance himself from Iyer-Mitra’s highly provocative and extremely insensitive tweets. But, it is too little and too late.
There is increasing public anger in the state against Jay Panda and his guests from Delhi. Panda was doing what he could to keep himself alive politically in Odisha. But, by seemingly breaking the law while flying over the Chilika Lake and for hosting a controversial right-wing commentator like Iyer-Mitra, he has possibly committed political suicide.
Update: The opinion piece above has been altered following objections from journalist Aarti Tikoo Singh.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. Views expressed here the author’s own)