There are two ways to see BJD’s rather intemperate outburst against OTV on Monday. The first of these is that the ruling party, for all its bravado in public, is apprehensive of the unthinkable happening in Bijepur. Otherwise, why is a party that beat back the BJP wave from the shores of Odisha at the height of Narendra Modi’s popularity in 2014, has a steamrolling majority of 117 out of 147 seats in the Assembly and 20 out of the 21 seats in the Lok Sabha and continues to brag that it would win the Bijepur by-election hands down, so rattled by what a mere TV channel does or doesn’t do? Rushing to the Chief Electoral Officer (CEO) with a formal complaint accusing OTV of peddling biased and ‘paid news’ to favour the BJP – something unprecedented in the state – and following it up with a press conference repeating much the same charges are surely not signs of a party that is confident of winning. A defeat in Bijepur – not necessarily at the hands of the BJP – may not mean much at the next general elections. But there is little doubt that it would mean a huge loss of face for the party that maintains that the BJP and the Congress are fighting for the second place in the constituency.
The other way of interpreting the outburst is that the ruling party is so blinded by anger towards suspended Kendrapara MP Baijayant Panda that it is determined to hit out at every entity that he is seen to be associated with. The sudden raking up of old charges against IMFA while suspending Mr. Panda from the primary membership of the party was the first sign that the BJD has decided to make entities owned and managed by Mr. Panda’s family pay for the suspended MP having the cheek to take on Mr. VK Pandian, the all-powerful private secretary to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik.
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I, for one, feel it is actually a mix of the two: apprehensions of an unfavourable verdict in Bijepur and visceral hatred of Mr. Panda.
The discomfiture with OTV has been evident for some time now. But it hit the nadir on Saturday when the BJD came up with the absolutely preposterous and laughable charge that it was an OTV reporter, who first checked out and made sure that Mr. Pandian was not home before signaling the all-clear to BJP Yuva Morcha goons through a phone call to come and create mayhem. How the once cozy relationship – old timers recall the time when BJD leaders and ministers refused to start a presser without the OTV boom in attendance – turned so bitter is a long story, may be for another day. But in my opinion, it snapped the day OTV broke the explosive ‘inter-departmental’ report of the Odisha State Forensic Science Laboratory (OSFSL) that clearly pointed to the rape of the Kunduli girl and spoiled the elaborate efforts by the government to bury the whole case under the carpet.
As for the charges themselves, I would refrain from sitting in judgment and leave it to the viewers of OTV to judge for themselves whether or not its coverage of the by-election is tilted in favour of the BJP and against the BJD as Food and Supplies minister Surya Narayan Patro has alleged. But as an outsider writing a column for its website for the better part of two years, I would strongly refute the charge that it carries ‘paid news’ or blacks out any view ‘dissenting’ view. For proof, one doesn’t have to go far. I would invite the readers’ attention to the piece titled “Attack on Pandian’s House is Politics of the Gutter” I had written on Saturday, the day the bureaucrat’s house was vandalized. Neither the headline nor the content can be accused of being evenly remotely ‘pro-BJP’ or ‘anti-BJD’. And yet, it found a place on the official OTV site without a word being changed. What does that tell the reader about OTV’s alleged pro-BJP tilt? And before someone points out that the site is different from the channel, let me emphasise that I expressed much the same views in a phone-in during their live coverage of the incident at Mr. Pandian’s house in the morning.
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If the charges against OTV were true, it would have been certainly reflected in its BARC ratings. But that is not the case. Week after week after week, it has stayed way ahead of its competitors – and for years now. If it is the BJD’s case that OTV was fair and even handed all these years, but suddenly turned hostile to BJD and friendly with BJP after the process of election got under way in Bijepur, then it would certainly hit the ratings in the weeks ahead. Till that happens, let us keep the verdict in abeyance.
Whenever anyone questions the BJD government, party leaders never tire of pointing out the resounding mandate it has received from the people in four successive elections. The trust of the viewers is the media equivalent of ‘mandate’ for a TV channel. Why is the BJD reluctant to extend the same argument that it uses to justify everything it does to a TV channel it has a problem with.
As a regular viewer of OTV since its inception, I disagree with many things the channel does, but partisanship is not one of them.