Sandeep Sahu

Political prediction is always fraught with risks. Even seasoned commentators have ended up with egg on their faces after crystal gazing into the future. But ‘Scandeep’ will still stick its neck out and predict that Bijoy Mohapatra, the enfant terrible of Odisha politics, is set to return to the party he co-founded before the next election. And no, the prediction is not based on the fact that he was a surprise invitee at the start-studded release of the book “The Tall Man” on Biju Patnaik this Saturday, though that was certainly the latest indicator of the shape of things to come. It is based on a careful perusal of his moves and utterances over the last several months during which he has spent more time fighting with leaders of his own party than doing what he does best: taking on Naveen Patnaik on his various acts of omission and commission.

That the man who has not held an elected post for 18 years still remains politically relevant is a tribute as much to his political acumen as his role as a one-man battering ram against Naveen Patnaik, his bête noire, during a time when the opposition was completely enfeebled. The man who was part of the team of Biju acolytes who engineered a split in the erstwhile Janata Dal to form the BJD and installed Naveen as its President remained politically relevant primarily on the strength of his sharp, reasoned and fact-based attacks on the Naveen Patnaik government. After being conned out of the electoral battle in 2000 by Naveen Patnaik, allegedly at the behest of the wily Pyari Mohan Mohapatra who saw him as a potential rival to his ‘ward’, the one-time Kendrapara strongman lost three successive Assembly elections – twice from Patkura and once from Mahakalpada.

The rest, as they say, is history. The political ‘novice’ who headed the breakaway group went from strength to strength even as the one-time No. 2 in the Biju Patnaik cabinet saw his political stature plummeting with one defeat after another. He formed the Odisha Gana Parishad (OGP) with some former colleagues in the Janata Dal, but it did not take him anywhere. While the party did send a lone MLA to the Assembly – Utkal Parida from Kendrapara in 2009 - the founder could not fight his way back into the House after falling foul of Naveen. In desperation, he joined the BJP, but it soon became apparent that he just did not belong there. He staked everything, including a highly sentimental pitch, to win from Mahakalpada on a BJP ticket in 2014, but lost to Atanu Sabyasachi for the second time. On his part, Naveen used every trick in the book (and many not in the book) to deny him that privilege.

As the 2019 elections drew nearer, Bijoy perhaps realized that his ‘now or never’ moment had arrived. He first started raising eyebrows with his utterances on the Mahanadi dispute with Chhattisgarh, which appeared designed to embarrass his own party. But he was able to sell it to the state as the stand of a man who cared more for his ‘maati’ (soil) than his party. On its part, the BJP certainly helped his cause by openly siding with Chhattisgarh rather than upholding the interests of Odisha. But soon, Bijoy started taking on Dharmendra Pradhan, the man seen as the party’s Chief Ministerial face, on other issues as well. All this while, he kept mum on the failings of the Naveen Patnaik government, setting tongues wagging.

His recent utterances on the Kunduli gang rape case have left very little doubt that he has decided to bury the hatchet and build bridges with the party he helped found. He certainly appears to be acting on the principle “If you can’t beat them, join them.” After the Kunduli victim committed suicide on January 22, Bijoy first said the district judge probing the case be entrusted with the responsibility of probing the circumstances leading to the suicide too so that the ‘truth comes out’ and the ‘officials found responsible in the entire case are booked immediately.’ Anyone with even an iota of political understanding could see that it was a statement designed to please Naveen and bail out the BJD because no one knows it better than him how long judicial inquiries take and what action is taken on the basis of their findings. A recent case in point is the commission on the Kalinganagar firing of January 2, 2006, which took a decade to find that no one was really guilty! Bijoy, who himself had been severely indicted by the Behera Commission into the Cuttack hooch tragedy in 1992, knows what ‘action’ was taken against him on the basis of the Commission’s findings.

As the demand for a CBI probe into the Kunduli victim’s suicide started gathering momentum, Bijoy came with another statement that must have been music to the ears of the BJD boss. Since the allegation was against paramilitary forces, it was for the Centre to order a CBI inquiry, Bijoy said knowing fully well that there was no way the Centre could do so without the consent of the state government under the existing rules.

The invite to Bijoy for the marquee event at Utkal Mandap for the release of ‘The Tall Man’ removed any doubt that remained about the fact that the bridge that had been burnt in 2000 has been rebuilt and awaits a formal inauguration anytime now.

While Bijoy's desire to return to the Assembly and regain his long-lost political clout is all too obvious, one may ask why would Naveen welcome a person he has virtually hounded all these years back into the party? Well, the reason lies in the changed ground realities in the wake of the ouster of Kendrapara MP Jay Panda from the BJD. Naveen needs the services of Bijoy, who still has a following in his home district, so that he can make a Bijoy Mohapatra out of him (Panda) in the next election by denying him the opportunity to return to Lok Sabha, whether as an independent or as the candidate of any political party. It is politically significant that while Bijoy was invited to the release of 'The Tall Man', Jay wasn't. There is thus sound political logic for this marriage of convenience between the two estranged colleagues.

NB: If and when Bijoy joins the BJD, remember you read it here first. If he does not, then blame it on the crystal gazing abilities of ‘Scandeep’ and make a poach out of the egg on its face!

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