Dear SEC, Countermand Polls in Penthapala

By Sandeep Sahu

It looks straight out of The Arabian Nights. Since l’affaire Penthapala burst on to the scene in panchayat poll-bound Odisha 10 days ago, each day has brought a fresh story, each more startling than the previous one. It has got to a stage where news on what is happening on the election front in the rest of the state has been relegated to the background by the past-paced developments in this hitherto little known panchayat in politically volatile Kendrapara district.

First came the allegation of skullduggery against the local BDO, who allegedly connived with Kendrapara MLA Kishor Tarai in fraudulently rejecting the nominations of two candidates to ensure that the MLA’s wife remained the lone woman standing in the election for panchayat samiti member from the Penthapala panchayat. Hardly had the storm kicked up by the Congress charge subsided when it was revealed that there were glaring discrepancies in the affidavits filed by the two-time MLA in 2004 and 2014 and the one filed by his wife as a candidate for the ongoing panchayat elections. In the 10 year-period between 2004 and 2014, his father transformed himself from Bimbadhar Tarai to Bimal Tarai. Perhaps following in the footsteps of her father-in-law, the MLA’s wife metamorphosed herself from Kabita (as in her husband’s affidavit filed during the last Assembly elections in 2014) to Babita – as per her own affidavit for the panchayat polls. A piece of land purchased in her name in Pattamundai in 2006 also named her as Babita. Curiously, the PAN card no of his wife ‘Kabita’ submitted by her husband during the 2014 polls has now been found to have been issued in the name of Babita! As if this was not enough, the cost of the piece of land bought for Rs 21.10 lakhs in 2006 and registered in the name of Babita mysteriously came down to a measly Rs 2 lakh in the 2014 affidavit filed by Kishor Tarai. Real estate prices have never been known to crash this drastically!

In a desperate – and I dare say laughable – effort to wriggle out of the hole that he finds himself in, the MLA has now come out with the stock explanation that every fraudster summons when caught with his pants down: typographical error. But since that still left the question of duals names of his wife and father unanswered, he blamed the teachers who enrolled the names in the voters list! Sorry Mr. MLA, in trying to unknot yourself, you have only managed to tie yourself in more inextricable knots.

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The beleaguered ruling party legislator first sought to do some damage control by announcing that his wife would resign once declared elected and seek a fresh mandate but no one was impressed with this ‘supreme sacrifice’. His intentions became clear when he pounced on the claim of Gayatri Sethi, one of the two women who had filed their nomination for panchayat samiti member, on Monday that she had indeed withdrawn her nomination, and held on to it for dear life. Tarai was just about the only person to have swallowed the fresh claim by Gayatri Sethi wholesale while everyone else was understandably skeptical. There were far too many unanswered questions that made it hard to be taken even with a bagful of salt. For one thing, where was the need for a fresh declaration when she herself is now claiming that she had withdrawn from the contest? Isn’t that the official position too? For another, why did it take over a week for her to wake up? And last but not the least, why didn’t she herself submit the fresh petition and face the TV cameras if she was speaking the truth? Though she has claimed that she was sending the clarification through her husband since she was unwell and in a hospital, no one seems to know what exactly has happened to her or which hospital she has been admitted to. Like the MLA, she too is unwittingly tying herself in knots.  If the MLA was beginning to breathe a little easier after Sethi’s declaration on Monday, Pramila Mallick, the other woman in the fray, played spoilsport toady when she made it clear that she had not withdrawn her nomination.

A word about the way the State Election Commission (SEC) has handled the whole affair. First, the fact that it recommended the shunting out of Pattamundai BDO Prashant Rout was a clear indicator that there was prima facie evidence of wrong doing. If that was the case, why did the SEC stop at mere transfer and not recommend his suspension pending an inquiry? Given the circumstances of the case, countermanding the election to this panchayat samiti would have been the most appropriate course. The heavens would not have fallen if the election was countermanded – more so since the MLA has already announced that his wife would seek a fresh mandate even if she wins. It is not too late to do that even now. If it doesn’t, it would only open itself to the charge of acting in a partisan manner.

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