Op-Ed: Pique replaces common sense in ‘copter row’

One can only pity Puri SP Dr. Sarthak Sarangi. The poor man is taking all the flak for a decision which he, left to himself, would perhaps never have taken. He would have known that the decision to seal the IMFA hangar at the Biju Patnaik airport and three helicopters belonging to the company on the basis of a flimsy, hurriedly filed FIR at the Arakhakuda police station was bad in law, would not stand scrutiny and cause serious embarrassment to both Puri police and the state government (as it has indeed done).

It was clear that he was merely reading out a script written in the state secretariat in Bhubaneswar when he told newspersons today that police would seek further clarification from Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), which gave a ‘clean chit’ to the flight undertaken by former BJD MP Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda ‘over Chilika Lake’ on September 15 in the company of his friends from Aarti Singh Tikoo and Abhijit Iyer-Mitra.

The sensible thing to do after the DGCA clarified yesterday that there had been no violation of any flight rules or norms during the said flight because the verdict came from the only authorized agency competent to decide on the matter. Instead of unsealing the hangar and releasing the three ‘grounded’ helicopters, the Puri SP said while the DGCA had clarified the copter did not land on Chilika, as initially claimed, the communication did not answer the other important question on the exact height that it stooped to. That’s why further clarification would be sought from the DGCA, Sarangi said while revealing that the ‘process to release’ two of the seized three helicopters had been initiated. But 12 hours after the announcement, the hangar and all three helicopters still remain sealed!

But then how can a mere SP dare defy the dreaded ‘Third Floor’ when cabinet ministers and secretary level officers genuflect before it? Others may think Odisha government and the Naveen Patnaik government as a whole have ended up with egg on their faces after the DGCA ‘clean chit’ to the flight. But those in the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO) setting the agenda for the state government obviously don’t feel embarrassed at all. They perhaps think they have achieved what they set out to achieve – ‘grounding’ the high-flying Jay Panda – and are in no mood yet to give up the opportunity to keep him grounded for a little longer so easily.

This is not the first time the Naveen Patnaik government has courted embarrassment. Four years ago, it did the same by instituting a vigilance inquiry against former Director General of Police (DGP) Prakash Mishra just to make sure he did not become the CBI chief. Even a severe rap on the knuckle by the Orissa High Court did not deter it from going in appeal to the Supreme Court – only to face more flak and have the case dismissed.

The motivation in both the cases was the same – pique and vengeance. In the Prakash Mishra case, even a law intern would have warned the government against knocking the doors of the apex court given the severe strictures passed by the High Court in its judgment. But the Law department and the Advocate General failed to muster the courage to do this since they knew the government was hell-bent on ‘teaching a lesson’ to Mishra. Alternatively, the CMO mandarins, who have the eyes and ears of the Chief Minister, chose to ignore the advice and decided to go ahead.

The number of flip-flops on the part of Puri police before it served a show cause notice to Jay Panda had left no room for doubt that the move was guided by politics rather than law, reason or common sense. As Panda has pointed out repeatedly, what was initially supposed to be ‘sea plane’ subsequently became a helicopter, ‘landing’ became ‘flying low’ over Chilika and the timing of the flight changed from ‘1.30 PM’ to 9.30 AM! But there was little that the Puri SP could do about it since he was, in all likelihood, apprehensive of meeting a fate similar to his ex boss (Prakash Mishra)!

Except for the 1974-1977 period, governments in India, whether at the Centre or the states, normally have their ear to the ground and are wary of doing anything that may create a negative perception in the people’s mind. But the BJD government is so drunk on power that it just doesn’t bother about public opinion. It is possible this contempt comes out of the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of voters couldn’t care less about whether a helicopter was seized or released. It perhaps believes that they are too busy earning their bread and thanking the government for the benefit in the form of doles bestowed on them to bother about whether it was right in doing what it did – and is doing. And that they would vote the BJD back to power in 2019.

The fear of public disapproval keeps governments on track and prevents them from doing anything outrageous. Once that fear is gone, governments tend to think they can get away with whatever they do, no matter how unethical, undemocratic and bad in law it is.

And that precisely is what appears to have happened in the helicopter saga.

(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)