Did He or Didn’t He? The Mystery of the May 29 ‘Coup’!


By Sandeep Sahu

It is amazing how a moment of indiscretion can spoil a lifetime of good work. No one would agree with this more than Pyari Mohan Mohapatra, the man who has had more epithets coined for him than any other politician in Odisha.
In an interview to a TV channel three years after May 29, 2012, he called it a ‘strategic mistake’ even as he continued to vociferously claim that he never planned a coup against BJD supremo Naveen Patnaik that day as alleged. The painstaking work that he had done in building the BJD, brick by solid brick, into the formidable force that it is today went down the drains amid allegations of a ‘midnight coup’ (it was actually more of a ‘daylight coup’). While the likes of Atanu Sabyasachi, Arun Sahu, Sanjay Dasburma, Pravat Biswal, Sarada Nayak and many others, who had openly sided with Pyari Babu on that fateful day, were welcomed back into the fold with open arms and even given important positions in the party and the government, their mentor never got the opportunity to explain his conduct. Though he strived hard to remain politically relevant after being unceremoniously shown the door by Naveen through Odisha Jan  Morcha (OJM), the party he founded, and occasional appearances in the media, Pyari Babu could never really get back the pole position in Odisha politics that he enjoyed for nearly a decade.

With Pyari Babu’s mortal remains now consigned to the flames, it would perhaps never be known what exactly transpired on that hot summer day five years ago. The dramatis personae of the high drama give such a bewildering range of conflicting versions on the events that it is hard to decide who is right: Naveen Patnaik, who termed his erstwhile mentor a ‘beimaan’ (traitor) and accused him plotting a coup d’ etat before throwing him out of the party or Pyari Babu, who maintained till his last breath that he never planned anything of the sort. In the event, everyone has his own take on the events of May 29, 2012 – as does this columnist. What follows, therefore, is this columnist’s own assessment as a journalist of what may have happened.

To put it in context, the showdown – real or purported – came in the backdrop of the just concluded panchayat elections in 2012 in which the BJD had won an unbelievable 651 out of 853 zilla parishad seats in the state. It is only fair to say that the party must have done equally well in the election for the posts of ward members, sarpanches and panchayat samiti members, despite the ‘partyless’ tag given to them. No one in the party – or outside – had any doubt whatsoever about who was the architect of this stupendous victory: it was Pyari Babu who was managing the whole show from the start to finish. Coming as it did on top of the equally impressive win in the 2009 Assembly elections – when the BJD proved skeptics within the party and outside wrong by bagging 103 seats on its own after severing its 11-year old alliance with the BJP – the steamrolling victory in the 2012 panchayat elections had made Pyari Babu larger than life. He was now perceived as the man with the Midas touch who had the uncanny ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Not just BJD leaders and workers, even the Opposition and the media were in awe of him.

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It is possible that some of this adulation went to Pyari Babu’s head, who started believing that he was not getting what was due to him for the exemplary work that he had done for the party and Naveen Patnaik. Some of his handpicked men, who had become MLAs, ministers or important functionaries of the party after the 2009 elections and owed their position solely to him (it is believed that nearly 70 of the 103 BJD MLAs owed their party tickets to him), must have fed into this narrative. Significantly, it was a banner in Kalahandi in the run up to the 2012 panchayat election where Pyari Babu’s picture was reportedly a few inches larger than that of Naveen that is believed to have got the BJD supremo’s goat. Insecure at the best of times, Naveen must have felt that Pyari Babu was getting too big for his comfort.

This then was the backdrop against which the events of May 29, 2012 unfolded. The timing of Pyari Babu’s move to assemble loyal party MLAs first at his residence and then at a swanky hotel in town certainly suggested that something was cooking – even if it did not amount to a full-fledged coup bid. After all, it was a time when Naveen  Patnaik had gone to UK on his first overseas tour after becoming Chief Minister. Anyone who saw and heard the boisterous Pravat Biswal, the MLA from Cuttack-Choudwar and among Pyari Babu’s staunchest loyalists, on TV that day would know that the mentor had not called his followers for exchange of pleasantries.

The narrative that was building up through the day was that Pyari Babu, convinced that he had the majority of BJD MLAs on his side, was out to force a split the BJD, dethrone Naveen and bid for power with the support of the Congress and others. Though the late Lalatendu Bidyadhar (Lulu) Mohapatra assured this author the same evening that there had been no talks between the two parties, doubts persisted. By midnight, however, the narrative had completely changed with many of those seen at Pyari Babu’s Sahid Nagar residence earlier in the day making a beeline for Naveen Nivas.

Pyari Babu carried the secret of what exactly happened that day to his grave. And knowing Naveen Patnaik, he is most unlikely to come out with his version of events in his lifetime. In the event, one can do no more than arrive at his own conclusion. This columnist, for one, believes that Pyari Babu did plan to raise the banner of revolt against Naveen Patnaik and had summoned his loyalists (who later proved that there are no loyalists in politics!) for this purpose though it is hard to say whether he actually intended to take over just the party or the government itself from his former ‘ward’. To paraphrase a term widely used in criminology, it was ‘culpable revolt not amounting to coup’!