Rhetoric Aside, BJP Cadre in Odisha Not Confident: Jay Panda

Cameraperson: Sumit Badola

Video Editor: Vivek Gupta & Purnendu Pritam

Former Kendrapara MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda’s likes to call himself the ‘Lutyens’ Maverick’. Ergo, he’s the eponymous protagonist of his book that was recently launched. After his resignation from the BJD around seven months ago, Panda has been the centre of political speculations. Will he join the BJP, after all?

In this exclusive interview with The Quint, Panda reveals that there may, indeed, be a plan in place to stop the victory streak of Naveen Patnaik. He has hinted at the possibility of a fourth front in Odisha and has given indications of what it would look like.

The first question the nation wants to ask you is, whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi is actually going to contest from an Odisha seat.

You know what, he’s got everybody on tenterhooks. There has been this buzz building over the last six months or so. And if he were to contest from Odisha, it would have a very significant impact. But he’s sent contradictory signals.

BJP party members in Odisha are claiming that there’s a very high likelihood that the prime minister will contest from Puri, but the prime minister himself has made light of it in a recent conversation with the media.

Every time you have come under fire in Odisha, BJP has been quite proactive in lending support to you and that has led people to speculate that you are actually going to join the BJP and it’s going to be a mere formality. What do you have to say to that?

The harassment I’ve been facing from my former party and former colleagues has led to everyone speaking out in my support, including the Congress, BJP, other regional parties who are active there, and other politicians. The other thing is that many commentators attributed some ulterior motives to my quitting the BJD, and many said that I’d join the party and get some position. They have been surprised, and quite disappointed I think, that for seven months I have not done that.

I want to make something clear. The BJD started out more than 20 years ago as an ally of the BJP and I was involved right from the beginning. We did have a common platform and there are ideas that I was championing all along. Now some of those ideas were implemented in the last five years when Prime Minister Modi came to power. I can’t suddenly back out and say ‘okay I have been championing these ideas, but because Modi ji has implemented them, they are terrible ideas. No!’

Do you feel that despite being the ‘Lutyens’ Maverick’, as you have called yourself, the circumstances of your exit from the party have not really been highlighted? You should have become a rallying point.

As far as being a rallying point, in Odisha if you go and ask, you’ll see a lot of people that are urging me to take a decision which will bring about that rallying point. My decision will be based on various factors. I’m in the final stages. People keep asking, ‘are you going to join this party, are you going to join that party, are you going to start your own party’, and I keep saying that all options are open to me. I will decide soon.

Is it true that we are actually going to see a fourth front in Odisha with you being a part of it, and people like Vijay Mahapatra, Dama Rout and Dilip Ray, so that Naveen Patnaik can be stopped in the next elections?

I can name a large number of people. I too had the privilege of working with Biju (Patnaik) uncle in politics in the last two years of his life. I’m much younger than these people, but Damodar Rout, Shri Vijay Mahapatra, Dilip Ray, and many others... All the Biju Parivar people have been mostly sidelined or shunted out. They feel an obligation to the people of Odisha because they helped build this organisation which has gone bad, which has become corrupt and violent.

Let me also point out something. Although the BJD did extremely well last time in Odisha, about 35 percent of the seats it won, were with very small margins. So if there were to be a combined coalition fighting those seats, it would be a different story in Odisha today.

What would that coalition look like?

That’s what I’m in the final stages of deciding, because, as I have said, in the last few years, the BJP grew to become the number 2 party in Odisha. But now seems to have lost its nerve as far as Odisha is concerned.

Is that owing to the infighting going on in the Odisha BJP?

I can’t comment on what’s been happening inside the BJP, but what is apparent is that the people of Odisha had a lot of hope that the ‘clean governance’ that the prime minister talks about, would lead to severe action against this corrupt nexus between politicians, bureaucrats, contractors who have defrauded lakhs of Odia families, but it has not happened. And the same was the case when the Congress was in government earlier.

You haven’t really attacked, or said anything against Mr Patnaik. You have, in fact, said that he’s been advised wrongly, and you have taken Mr (Vijay) Pandian’s name which leads one to question whether you are being politically very strategic about this attack.

I may or may not attack Naveen, but he’s accountable to the people of Odisha, and you can see that this party having changed into a violent organisation has led to his popularity dropping. But you are right, I had considered and treated him like an elder brother. I treated him as my party leader, and it’s sad to see what has happened. I think he has largely delegated to this new coterie who have taken over the party, who were not around when we were struggling to build the party over the first 15 years.

And yes, Pandian is certainly the main culprit. You know, it is shocking that a serving civil servant is running the party, is collecting funds, is distributing tickets. It’s shocking; it’s simply not acceptable. Every week in Odisha there are three or four Kathuas and Unnaos – of gang rapes and murders of children and women. It has happened because the party has been hijacked, and the state government is not acting in the way it used to in the first 15 years.

When Naveen first came into politics, he represented a new type of clean politics. Important Cabinet ministers were dropped within 24 hours of any corruption scandal. Serving senior IAS officers were arrested. Look at the last five years, there’s been a huge rise in corruption but not a single person has been dropped for corruption.

Naveen has very astutely played the Congress and the BJP against each other. He’s convinced, each of the two national parties that if they attack the BJD, the other national party will gain. So for the ten years that the UPA was in government, it did not take strong steps against the chit fund scandal and the other scams in Odisha. Now it looks like the BJP is making the same mistake, that it thinks that if it really takes the fight to the BJD, then perhaps the Congress will gain.

Odisha has become part of this constant narrative “oh, we are coming back in 2019 and Odisha features majorly this time.”

It’s an irony actually. The BJP was on an onward trajectory and it inched past the Congress in the last couple of years into becoming the second largest party in Odisha. If that trajectory had continued, if they had taken serious steps on the ground against corruption and crime, then their claims would not be out of place. Maybe as far as the rhetoric goes there is still that confidence but as far as actual political activism on the ground in Odisha, the BJP is not demonstrating confidence.

My last question is going to be this hashtag ‘Heijau’. Please tell us a little more about it.

Some of my critics sort of dismiss me as... somebody called me a ‘Twitter tiger’. I spend easily the most amount of time on ground, of any of my peers in Odisha. And certainly, among all MPs in India, I have the highest record of time spent in the field in the constituency, and all over Odisha’s rural parts. So I have a real connect there. As I said, that’s my thing of being a Lutyens’ maverick. I’m in Lutyens, with one foot here, and one foot very firmly on the ground.

So I’ve been having tea at dhabas all over the place. Later on, this became popularised when Prime Minister Modi, when he was not yet the prime minister, he started this Chai pe Charcha thing. Then my teas started getting a lot of attention, although I had been doing it for much longer. Last year, some supporters on social media started asking me to have these gatherings in a bigger way, and somebody gave it the hashtag “Heijau”.

Heijau is essentially the Odia version of the Hindi phrase “Ho Jaye” (let’s make it happen) and ho bhi gaya (it has happened)! It’s gone from having a small interaction over tea to almost becoming a political rally. At one of them, we had nearly ten thousand people present just a few weeks ago. So yes, indeed it is getting traction and there is this seething bubbling resentment.

One of the major problems in Odisha is joblessness. After 19 years of a government’s full terms, if you have four million Odias working outside, not just in IT jobs, as doctors, engineers, but people working in brick kilns, people working in Iraq and Afghanistan out of sheer desperation. And many families turn to me to help rescue them. I’ve been successful in getting a lot them repatriated, but sadly, in many cases, only the coffins come back home. So there is a lot of resentment, and sometimes the national media, the national parties don’t see it.

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