Shortly after Mr. Soumya Ranjan Patnaik joined the BJD this morning, someone posted on Facebook a video of an interview the ‘Sambad’ Editor had given to a local TV channel some time back. Asked about the possibility of joining the BJD during the course of the interview, Patnaik says rhetorically, “I am running an Odia newspaper. I have been fighting for the Odia language and self respect, trying to persuade people to speak in Odia. If I join hands with Naveen Babu tomorrow, what would I tell the people? I can’t obviously teach Odia to him. Won’t they ask, ‘Soumya Babu, you too sold out in the end’?”
Mr. Patnaik couldn’t have possibly have forgotten what he had said in this interview and countless other statements in public while taking the decision to join hands with his bête noire. But then this perhaps is par for the course in politics. But one is not entirely sure if he was aware of the damage that he would do in the process to his own reputation, to the newspaper that he painstakingly built up from scratch over three decades and the countless people – farmers, victims of chit fund scam, blood donors and youngsters looking up to him as a role model – who reposed faith in him to give Odisha the leadership that it sorely lacks.
Let us first discuss what the decision has done to his own persona. If he decided to eat his words just to become a member of the Rajya Sabha, one has to say he has set his sight pretty low. A man of his standing is cut out for much bigger things. His standing as an Editor, public intellectual and a crusader for Odia language and culture was way above what he can aspire to achieve by becoming a member of the House of Elders.
If he did it to position himself as a possible Chief Minister in a post-Naveen scenario, there are plenty of detractors within the ruling party who would put paid to his ambition. After all, the core of the BJD, a later day reincarnation of the Janata Party/Janata Dal, consists of people who have spent a lifetime fighting against the Congress in general and the family of former Chief Minister Janaki Ballav Patnaik (his father-in-law) in particular. In fact, there are already reports of some of his ‘enemies’ unsheathing their swords within hours of his joining the BJD.
The impact of his decision could be even more devastating on ‘Sambad’, the No. 1 Odia daily by a distance. No one knows it better than Mr. Patnaik that the ascendancy of the newspaper he founded in 1984 began only after his father-in-law, along with the party he headed, was routed and the Late Biju Patnaik became the Chief Minister in 1990. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist to know why. It is common knowledge that people the world over love reading news and views against the government of the day and detest publications that are mouthpieces of the government. And that precisely is what has seen ‘Sambad’ grow exponentially over the years, except for a four-year interregnum from 1995 to 1999 when his late father-in-law was back as Chief Minister. [It was during this period that Soumya Babu had his first stint, though rather brief, as the Member of Parliament (MP) from the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency.] It goes without saying that the subtle pro-BJD tilt that the discerning readers have spotted in ‘Sambad’ of late is going to become more obvious and in-your-face over the coming days. Having given him a ticket to the Rajya Sabha, barely six hours after he joined the BJD, Naveen Patnaik would obviously extract his ‘pound of flesh’ and the ‘Sambad’ Editor knows it only too well. Not just ‘Sambad’, Kanak TV, the news channel from the Eastern Media stable, too would suffer from a crisis of credibility from now on.
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And spare a thought for the lakhs of farmers and victims of chit fund companies, who had reposed so much faith on him to fight their battle with the Naveen Patnaik government on their behalf. Notwithstanding the brave front put up by Mr. Akashya Kumar of the Navnirman Krushak Sangathan (NKS) and Mr. Jayant Das, leader of the chit fund victims’ association, these people would feel utterly cheated by his decision. Of course, Soumya Babu can always invoke the dictum “If you can’t beat them, join them” and try to justify his decision saying it would be easier to get justice for them from within the party. But alas! There would be few, if any, takers for his argument. People would now say that he was merely paving his way back from wilderness to the political mainstream through his leadership of these groups. [In fact, they have already started saying so, if the reactions on social media since the morning are anything to go by.]
But the bigger damage that Mr. Patnaik has done is to the do-gooders who may come after him. Even if they have no political ambitions and genuinely want to do something good for the state, they are bound to be viewed with suspicion by an increasingly cynical people. One doesn’t really know the compulsion/motivation that persuaded the ‘Sambad’ boss to join the BJD. But it is hard to fathom how the ruling party can compensate him for what he has lost out in terms of prestige and credibility in the public eye.
Compared to Mr. Patnaik, the induction of Mr. Achyuta Samanta, founder of KIIT and KISS, raised fewer eyebrows, though his nomination to the Rajya Sabha straightaway must have surprised many. Unlike in the case of the ‘Sambad’ founder, the educational czar’s proximity to the government and the ruling party has been the worst kept secret in the state for some time. With the problems that he is facing on account of alleged land grab and violation of rules in setting up his education empire, he has a compulsion to be on the right side of the government. It is a measure of the bonhomie of between him and Naveen Patnaik that barely days after the NGT issued a notice to the state government asking it to recover land under illegal possession of KIIT-KISS, the Chief Minister was happy to visit KISS and address the tribal children studying there (who were given Naveen masks, a la Modi masks, to wear on their faces!).
Some people have raised objection to his nomination for the Rajya Sabha by invoking the BJD supremo’s statement on his return from New Delhi on February 25 in which he had said that only ‘political’ people would be nominated for the Upper House. But as a wag commented, wasn’t the six hours between his joining the BJD and the announcement of his candidature for the RS long enough for him to graduate from being an educational entrepreneur to a politician? Just as Mr. Patnaik was using his position as a media baron to regain political relevance, Mr. Samanta too was clearly leveraging his position as the head of the institution that claims to be running the biggest residential school for tribal children in the world for a political position.
With these two stalwarts showing that they have feet of clay, is there a hope in hell for Odisha? The near future looks really bleak.
[Note: It wasn’t easy to decide to write about someone who was this columnist’s first Editor, a mentor and a lifelong well-wisher, especially since what was about to be written was anything but complimentary to him. I had a choice of not writing on this issue at all and picking up some other ‘harmless’ topic to write on. And there was certainly no dearth of such topics. But then that would have been dishonesty on my part. In any case, when has journalism been an easy job?]