Everything went along predictable lines. Supporters of Law minister and Mahanga MLA Pratap Jena made good their promise of assaulting Kendrapara MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda during his visit to the ‘enemy territory’ of Mahanga on Tuesday to inaugurate an overhead water tank built with his MPLAD funds.
Panda too was as good as his word of not being ‘cowed down’ by threats of violence. On his part, Jena read out from the classic political rule book by feigning ignorance about the whole thing. There was nothing surprising in the statements by political leaders, including those from his own party, on the issue either though Food minister Surjya Narayan Patro’s attempt to brush it away as a ‘local issue’ did generate some mirth.
Equally predictably, all eyes are now on BJD supremo and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see what he says or does on the issue – and even whether he does say or act in the matter at all. It is all too obvious to anyone who is not a member of his opposite camp in the party that there was little to fault the Kendrapara MP for in the incident. It was not as if he was treading on someone’s shoes. After all, the whole of Kendrapara Lok Sabha constituency is his turf and he is fully entitled to go anywhere – more so when the visit was to inaugurate an overhead tank that would bring some much needed relief to the parched throats of the people in the area. Therefore, the party chief has precious little to chide or censure him on. But in case he fails to chastise the Jena camp – not necessarily by naming him or his supporters – it would certainly send out a clear signal that the egg attack on his former buddy had his blessings.
The last time such a thing had happened was in Mahakalpada when the Chief Minister himself was present on the dais while former minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak’s supporters booed Panda, who was also on the dais. On that occasion, Naveen had taken recourse to his tried and tested policy of glorious indifference that has served him so well all these years. But unlike the Mahakalpada case, he cannot afford to remain silent on the happening in Mahanga – and not just because it was an actual physical assault with eggs, stones and footwear today. Failure to speak up and condemn the violence, even if only in a perfunctory manner, would buttress the impression already gaining ground that he couldn’t care less what happens to Panda or – worse still – the attack had his tacit support. For someone who has kept himself way above petty bickering among party leaders for so long, such a course would certainly make a dent in his carefully cultivated public persona. Even if he is not accused of complicity, silence on the matter would convince people that the man who wielded the whip at the drop of a hat in the past has lost the ability to act against recalcitrant leaders in the party.
Several hours after the assault, it is not yet clear what exactly Mr. Panda was being punished for. It certainly cannot be the fact that he had chosen to earmark a part of MPLAD fund to build an overhead water tank with a capacity of over one lakh litres. If it was for his utterances on party affairs since the below par show of the BJD in the panchayat elections, he has already been punished for it by being stripped of the post of spokesperson of the parliamentary party, hasn’t he? If the party leadership thought that wasn’t adequate punishment for his ‘crime’, he could have been served a show cause notice, suspended or even dismissed from the party. In choosing to do none of this and instead stage manage a physical assault on him, the BJD may well have ended up doing the exact opposite of what it had sought to do in the first place. Far from besmirching his image, the attack has actually enhanced his image as someone who didn’t chicken out in the face of violence. Instead, it is the party’s reputation that has taken a serious hit in the process. It has shown that the BJD is now so intolerant of dissent that it doesn’t mind stooping to physical violence to score a political point.
For all one knows, the organised (it just can’t be otherwise) attack on Panda could well be part of the BJD’s strategy of pushing him to the brink, leaving him with no choice but to quit the party on his own, without taking recourse to any disciplinary action against him. If that indeed is the case, it may have presented him with a victimhood card that he could play to telling effect in the next election. The BJD, on the other hand, wouldn’t exactly come out smelling of roses in the whole process.