Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda. (Source: BloombergQuint)

Forming A New Party Is An Option, Says Baijayant Panda

Baijayant ‘Jay’ Panda, one of the founding members of Biju Janata Dal, wants to keep his options open ahead of the general election. The former Lok Sabha member who had fallen out of favour with his party last year is now open to working with any of the national parties provided they they are keen on bringing about “real change” in Odisha.

While accusing both the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress for not taking action against the “rising corruption and crime” under Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, Panda said that forming a new political party is also “one of the options”.

Panda, whose book titled “Lutyen’s Maverick” was launched recently, talks about why he left the BJD and his views on Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Watch the full conversation here:

Here are the edited excerpts from the interview:

Your book is titled “Lutyen’s Maverick”, are you “Lutyen’s Maverick” and why?

In the 18 years I spent time in Parliament, I tried to keep my outsider instinct alive. Which means while I had one leg in Delhi, in Parliament, in the world of policy making, I had another foot firmly back home in the constituency and in rural areas of Odisha. Because I think it is important to balance the two. Sometimes policy-making happens here in vacuum without clearly understanding what is required or needed back home and vice versa. Sometimes there are expectations from the ground which are difficult to translate policy in Delhi. So yes, I do consider myself a bit of a maverick. I have kept pushing the envelope all these years, suggesting radical ideas and supporting change and reform in the system.

Why did you leave Biju Janata Dal? What exactly happened between you and Odisha CM Naveen Patnaik considering you were one of the people who founded the party. The general perception is it was your closeness to the BJP that led to the rift. Is there truth in this?

This is false propaganda spread about me. Evidence of this is clear. I left the BJD and Parliament seven months ago. Many of these commentators had predicted that I would join the BJP and have some position. But it has been seven months and I have not done that. In fact, I have spent time travelling extensively in Odisha, talking to people to get feedback about what I should do. So, it is not true. Let me tell you what went wrong. You are right, I was involved in the founding of BJD and I was a proud member for more than 15 years. I worked very hard to build the BJD’s image at a national level. It was not treated seriously. Naveen was treated like a socialite. I had to work very hard at Delhi level to build the image. And also, I was very proud of what Naveen was doing back in Odisha in the first three terms. He took very strong action against corruption and crime. I was proud to be part of that moment. But in the last five years it all went wrong. The party has been hijacked by a new coterie that had nothing to do with the founding or the building of the party. Naveen seems to have delegated almost all authority to this coterie including a shocking scenario of a serving IAS officer running the party, collecting funds and distributing tickets. It has never happened before.

The sharp rise of corruption and crime in Odisha is something that is not tenable. I could not continue anymore. When you have a horrible case of gang rape or murder like you had in J&K and UP, the national media covers it as it should. But we have three to four such cases every week in Odisha which doesn’t get coverage. But that doesn’t mean people are not outraged. In Odisha, there is lot of anger against it. It is not tenable to support that kind of turn that the party has taken.

Naveen Patnaik has this aura of invincibility backed by his long tenure at the helm of Odisha government. Do you think it still stands?

Naveen Patnaik has won four terms and he will be seeking a fifth term in the elections which are coming up now. His personal popularity had risen very high because of the very strong early actions against corruption and crime. That has changed in the last five years. From the opinion polls it’s clear although he still has a lot of goodwill, his popularity level is far lower than what it used to be in earlier years. So, there is a degree of vulnerability there. The party’s popularity was always much lower than his personal popularity and the party’s acceptability is extremely low because of the large number of criminals who have gotten into the party and are holding office.

One of the other things which has lent to the aura of invincibility is that the BJD has very successfully played the Congress and BJP against each other, convincing both that they should not go hammer and tongs against the BJD because it will help the other national party. Congress was the largest party when BJD was founded but it slipped into third position now in Odisha. The BJP, after growing into second position in last five years, seems to be now falling into the same trap and many are accusing it of going soft on BJD precisely for this reason. So that aura is a brilliant act of smoke and mirrors but somebody has to have the guts to expose that.

Who will be that somebody? Will it be BJP? Will you join BJP for this purpose? Are you going to fight the next elections from Kendrapada again?

I have been speaking out. First, before quitting the BJD and before speaking out openly, I tried very hard to speak inside the party, to try to get the party to change course, to go back to its original principles and objectives. When that didn’t work, I had to speak out publicly. I was sidelined, I was physically assaulted after which I decided to quit the party, quit the parliament. After me, many people have started speaking out. There are several political leaders in Odisha who are speaking against the corruption, crime and joblessness in Odisha. Both the national parties, BJP and Congress, have also began speaking out. But the question is, are they going to take the next step and do something about it. Because I am not interested in speaking about the problems which Odisha has. I want to take action on the ground and bring reform and change. I told you about how both these parties have been suckered into not fighting hard in Odisha.

When UPA was in government for ten years, it did not act against the severe corruption allegations in Odisha on the chit fund scam and the same thing happened in the last five years. Even though the CBI was forced to conduct an inquiry by a court order, there has been no real progress in the case. The tracks are growing cold. I am willing to join hands with anybody who is serious about not just talking but bringing about real change in Odisha. If the major national parties don’t have the stomach for that fight, then there are plenty of outraged political leaders in Odisha and youth support for bringing about this change that can happen locally in Odisha.

Are you talking about forming a different party?

That is one of the options. In fact, if you monitor Odisha media, you will see that many leaders and many members of the public have been urging me to be involved in founding of a new party. This is not something to be done lightly. It is a very tough course to follow. But it is one of the options which is being considered. And of course, I have friends in the major parties also. I have been discussing with them as to what will be the right combination of efforts to bring about change in Odisha. And I am nearing the decision. Elections are nearing, and the people of Odisha want me to announce the decision. They have a right to know. I will decide and announce it soon.

Is the BJP your most natural ally considering you seem to have common views on a number of subjects?

This is too simplistic a reading. Let me explain. When the BJD was founded, it started life as an ally of the BJP and there was a common minimum program. I was championing many of those ideas. It so happened the alliance broke but I kept championing those ideas whether it was Vajpayee or Dr. Manmohan Singh or Modi ji as Prime Minister. In Prime Minister Modi’s tenure, some of these ideas have actually been implemented. Take the example of the campaign against VVIP privileges and I wanted the removal of the red-light beacons of VVIP cars. This decision happened a couple of years ago under the present government. So I welcomed it because I have been campaigning for that for 15 years. And many people used that and many similar examples to say that I am aligned with the Modi government. It is not true. I am aligned to the ideas that I have been espousing and whoever implements them. If it is Modi then good, if it is somebody else that’s also good. I will support the implementation of those ideas.

Regarding what is going to happen as far as my next step is concerned, as far as Odisha is concerned, it will depend on who is committed to bringing about change, who is prepared to tackle the rising crime and rising corruption in Odisha. The BJP has been speaking about it, but I gave you examples of how they have also not taken any real action to tackle that rising crime and corruption. It depends on who is willing to fight and not just talk about it.

In one of the articles printed in your book, you have mentioned how strong the BJP and the Modi government seem. This was over a year ago. What is your assessment today after the results in five states out of which Congress has won three?

I think the election is wide open today after the developments in the recent state elections. A year ago it had been conventional wisdom that the NDA was definitely getting a second term but today that conventional wisdom has changed after the state elections and I think it is correct to say that the election is open. It would be a contest. On one hand, the Congress seems to be much more energetic today, on the other hand, you have several regional parties getting very active and trying to work in co-operation with each other. These will all be major factors. There is no way that NDA coming back can be taken for granted but at the same time nobody should write off the NDA and Prime Minister Modi because perhaps he is the most gifted communicator in a generation in our politics, certainly since Vajpayee ji. Plenty of good work has been done which can be marketed properly. Goods and Service Tax may have had its problems and created lot of difficulties but 50 years from now people will be looking back at GST as a seminal moment, a turning point in India’s growth story and India’s fight against poverty. With 4-5 months left before the elections, the game is wide open. It depends on whether it is PM Modi or his opponents who are better able to utilise the time ahead and that will be the deciding factor in these elections.

What do you make of Rahul Gandhi and his new-found aggression? Do you think he is managing to pitch himself as a primary opponent to Narendra Modi and will the Rafale controversy help him?

It is unquestionable that he should be complimented for his persistence. Because for many years now, the Congress has been having setback after setback. Not just the 2014 elections but right after 2009 there have been many other setbacks. Losing state after state, Rahul Gandhi had become the butt of jokes and memes but to persist and to have the stomach to keep striving and to come out punching, you have to give him credit for sheer guts and perseverance. Having said that, you asked about Rafale. I think both Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, acquitted themselves very well in the debate in parliament. They answered the questions very candidly. I don’t know how far the Rafale issue is going to matter. If you go to rural India, people really can’t tell you what Rafale is or what the alleged scandal is about. But I see it differently. The Rafale allegation may or may not have merit but it has served as a platform for Rahul Gandhi and the opposition to come together and to show that they are still willing to fight it out.

What about issues like agricultural distress and jobs? Do you think these are issues which will hurt the BJP’s prospects enough to really change the results?

These are the two biggest economic problems faced by India today and politically the two biggest issues leading up to the general elections in 2019. But we have to admit that both farmers’ distress and joblessness is not a new thing. It is not a problem which suddenly popped out from nowhere in the last five years. These are persisting problems from the last many decades because India missed the bus in the 60s, 70s and 80s to get on the high growth bandwagon like many other Asian countries did and transformed themselves from poverty into development.

These are age-old problems. But the fact is, this government is also partly responsible for setting the expectations very high. On the one hand, you could argue that these problems are there for so many decades, how can they be solved in five years and they should be given second chance and maybe, they should be given another five years to solve the problem. Or you could argue that you promised to set it right and you haven’t yet, and we will not give you a second chance. This is where the battle of perceptions is going to be fought. And this is where it will depend immensely, both on the wisdom and the judgement of the voters that “Is five years enough to have solved these problems?” or “Do they deserve a second chance?” Also, the ability of PM Modi and his team to convince that, “Look it is not reasonable to expect that such fundamental problems can be solved in five years and they require a second term.”

Where do you stand on this question? Do you think the Modi government has done a great job and deserves a second chance?

People sometimes read the headline rather than the chapters. If you read the book, you will see, there is lot of new commentary also in which I explained that it is important to not see things in black and white, to see the nuance. There are many areas I have pointed out where the current government has missed opportunities, where it has had opportunities. The fact is, a lot has happened. I am a strong supporter of the GST but the streamlining of GST which is taking place now in the last two months should have happened a year ago so that a lot of pain and difficulties would not have been felt. But I remain a supporter of the GST.

Let’s come to the farm problem. As I said, it is an ongoing problem. We have a real dilemma today that, “Should we have loan waivers?” Loan waivers are not a solution, but if you don’t have some sort of relief for farmers today, you have millions of farmers in real distress. They are committing suicide. No political party can ignore their distress. Perhaps an attitude has to be taken that some relief has to be given to farmers immediately in the short term which will not help to solve the problem in the future but other steps have to be taken to solve the problem. And I have advocated ideas like cash transfers. Now this has been demonstrated very successfully in Telangana by the government there, by using cash transfers for farmers as an alternative to minimum support price. It has worked politically, and it also works economically. These are ideas which need to be implemented.

Whether PM Modi deserves a second chance? These will be important factors. I think in many ways, he has done a good job. But since I am elected from Odisha, my focus primarily has to be to improve the lives of my fellow Odias. 40 million of my Odias who are forced to migrate outside and work in brick kilns, in danger areas like Iraq and Afghanistan because there are no jobs at home, I will be willing to lend my support to whoever, whether it is PM Modi or one of the other options which will bring about change in Odisha. It is important for all states to grow for India to be better.

What you think about the Mahagathbandhan which is trying to take shape?

Mahagatbandhans are very difficult to put together in India because of the extreme divergence in ideology and clashing egos. And it is especially difficult before the election to agree on a common ground. Post-election, under compulsion many people come together. But pre-election is very hard. We have seen recently that when you had by-elections in one or two seats, then such Gathbandhans could happen. And in fact, they showed that they are effective. But when you have state-level elections, it was difficult for several parties to come together because there are multiples seats. Not just one or two seats. So, when you have national-level elections, it becomes much more difficult because we are not talking about one or two seats here, one or two states there but many hundreds of seats across many states all across the country. It is not easy. But if they can come together, the arithmetic is fairly compelling. I think it will have a very important effect on the elections.