Zero SUM Game: Why conspiracy theories thrive in Odisha?

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By Sandeep Sahu

We Odias love nothing more than a conspiracy theory. We can smell one in something as commonplace as someone having a cup of tea. So it was hardly any surprise when all kinds of weird theories started doing the rounds even before the fire at the SUM hospital had been fully extinguished on Monday evening.

“19? You must be crazy. I was there and I can assure you not less than 50 people have been killed in the incident,” a garrulous young man emphatically told this author at the Capital Hospital later that night. “Scores of bodies have been whisked away to be dumped elsewhere,” he said a conspiratorial tone without bothering to reveal the source of his information.

There were other conspiracy theories circulating all through that eventful night about where exactly Manoj Nayak, the elusive head of the SOA group of educational institutions, was hiding. Some even traced him to a ruling party leader’s official residence!

The fact that Manoj Nayak ‘s name was missing in the FIR lodged at the Khandagiri police station the next day was apparently part of another conspiracy. That this particular conspiracy theory fell flat on its face with his arrest within 24 hours is, however, another matter.

Meanwhile, a little known Odia website came up with a scoop of sorts about how a group of BJD leaders had assembled at the house of a young minister to conspire against Health Minister Atanu Sabyasachi Nayak in a bid to see his exit from the cabinet. Just imagine how? By ensuring that Manoj Nayak is NOT arrested! (Just in case it was not clear to the reader, the report helpfully explained that if Manoj Nayak is not arrested, it would be obvious that Atanu is ‘protecting’ him, which would strengthen the case against the Health Minister!!) As conspiracy theories go, this one certainly took the cake!!!

But what one has been witnessing since Thursday morning – after the surrender/arrest of Manoj Nayak in the wee hours, to be precise – on television channels is the mother of all conspiracy theories. It is not just being subtly hinted or suggested, but being shouted from the roof tops on News7, the channel owned by Manoj Nayak, that two rival channels – OTV and Kanak News – had conspired to hound the founder of the SOA because of an old grudge. In the case of OTV, the channel even specified the grudge: the expose done by it last year on Sarathi Baba, who it alleged was being protected and promoted by Kendrapara MP Baijayant Panda, the husband of OTV head Jagi Panda – with nothing more substantial to back its claim than the fact that the Baba used to feature in a programme on the devotional channel from the OTV stable. (Thank God for small mercies it didn’t accuse OTV of causing the short circuit that led to the fire and left 21 people dead!)

All day, as other channels were busy covering the developments on the story that had taken a new turn after the surrender/arrest of Nayak, News7 kept airing the preposterous conspiracy theory in between showing protests against his arrest by people who left no one in doubt about where their loyalties, sympathies and affiliations lay. Even the panelists chosen for the endless studio discussions that are standard fare on such occasions appeared to have been chosen either because of their known sympathies with the SOA boss or told in advance by the producers the line they were expected to toe. All pretensions to journalistic ethics and balance went quickly out of the window as the channel continued its tirade against the alleged ‘conspirators’ all through the day.

Meanwhile, another group of conspiracy theorists was working overtime – with or without the blessings of the SOA group – to attribute the unusually harsh coverage of the incident on Times Now for two days running to the machinations of the Kendrapara MP. Those who know Arnab Goswami, however, were not at all surprised either by the choice of the subject or the stridency of his hectoring during the Newshour debate on Tuesday and Wednesday.

As any social scientist would tell you, conspiracy theories thrive in societies where awareness levels are low. And any Tom, Dick & Harry can tell you it flourishes the most in societies where people have plenty of time to spare for idle gossip. On both these counts, Odisha ranks high. No wonder it is such a fertile ground for conspiracy theories.