Bhubaneswar: Political temperature in Odisha has shot up with the expulsion of media baron and Khandapada MLA Soumya Ranjan Patnaik from the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD) on Thursday, September 21. Though chief minister and BJD president Naveen Patnaik also expelled Remuna MLA Sudhansu Sekhar Parida for indulging in “anti-people” activities, the focus was clearly on Ranjan Patnaik, the son-in-law of former chief minister J.B. Patnaik and the high-profile owner of an Odia media conglomerate that runs a widely circulated vernacular daily and a popular news channel.
The action against Ranjan Patnaik, who owns and edits the popular Odia daily Sambad, comes in the wake of his removal from the post of BJD vice-president about a week ago. The Sambad office was recently raided by the Economic Offence Wing (EOW) of the state Crime Branch in connection with a case of alleged loan fraud. The raids followed Ranjan Patnaik’s write-ups in Sambad criticising the chief minister’s private secretary V.K. Pandian. The secretary’s style of functioning and his visits to various districts – where he was accorded more importance than elected representatives – has garnered interest and disdain in political circles. Opposition leaders feel that Ranjan Patnaik has been punished for “daring” to take on the most powerful bureaucrat in the state.
Remuna MLA Sudhansu Sekhar Parida, on the other hand, was expelled after being accused of misappropriating government subsidies worth Rs 3 crore meant for farmers. The matter is being investigated by the state vigilance wing. Parida not only denied the allegations but also asserted that the people of his constituency knew he was innocent. “The people of Remuna are with me,” he said.
Parida, however, is small fish compared to Ranjan Patnaik, whose editorial comments sometimes embarrassed the BJD leadership. Things came to a head when he targeted Pandian, questioning his visits to districts which was seen as an act of appropriating the powers and duties of elected representatives. Most senior BJD leaders immediately sprang to the defence of Pandian and accused Ranjan Patnaik of “stabbing the party in the back”.
While the rift between Ranjan Patnaik and chief minister Naveen Patnaik widened after his removal from the post of BJD vice-president their relations worsened after EOW raided the office of Sambad on September 18 and grilled some senior officers in connection with a case of alleged fraud. The case was registered following a complaint by Aseem Mohapatra, a former employee of Sambad\Eastern Media Limited (EML), the company which publishes the daily. Mohapatra alleged that EML had availed two loans of Rs 5 lakh each in his name in 2009 and 2015, for which he was forced to give his consent.
A press release issued by the BJD on the expulsion of Ranjan Patnaik referred to the FIR, adding that “many ex-employees of Sambad newspaper have made similar allegations with the EOW Odisha. It is a serious case of organised bank fraud involving loans worth crores of rupees taken in the name of more than 300 employees of Sambad by using fraudulent means and forged documents.”
Opposition parties slam BJD
While Ranjan Patnaik could not be reached for his reaction to the action against him, the two major opposition parties – Congress and BJP – described his expulsion as undemocratic and a sign of growing intolerance to criticism within the ruling BJD. “There is absolutely no democracy in the BJD. The party leadership is not only intolerant but also scared of facing the truth. The action against Soumya Ranjan does not bode well for the party,” said BJP veteran and leader of opposition Jay Narayan Mishra.
State Congress president Sarat Patnaik said the action against Soumya was clearly vindictive in nature. “He has been punished for telling the truth. The BJD continues to ignore the misdeeds of many of its leaders but it has acted against Soumya Ranjan Patnaik because it is scared of facing the truth,” he said.
Ranjan Patnaik is not the only BJD leader to have been punished by the party’s top brass for “anti-people activities.” Before him, Gopalpur MLA Pradeep Panigrahi faced the wrath of the BJD leadership. He was arrested on corruption charges and sent to jail. As he tried to fight back, he was expelled from the party in December 2020.
BJD leaders who had criticised Ranjan Patnaik in the past refrained from commenting on his expulsion. It is becoming increasingly clear that the party will not tolerate any attack either on the chief minister or those close to him.
Ranjan Patnaik, on his part, had ignored the fact that the chief minister’s private secretary Pandian was undertaking visits to different districts to assess the progress of the government’s development projects with the express consent of his boss.
However, what irked most opposition leaders was the kind of welcome he was accorded in the districts he visited. They felt that he was trying to appropriate what was actually their due. “Politicians have got so used to being welcomed in a grand manner by people and officials during their visits to their areas that they can’t tolerate someone else receiving the same kind of treatment. This seems to have created the problem,” said political analyst Shashi Kant Mishra.
However, the fact that Ranjan Patnaik is a media baron from a high-profile political family (his elder brother Niranjan Patnaik was a minister in the J.B. Patnaik government and later president of Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee) means that the BJD’s punitive action is bound to have repercussions – especially since it comes as the state gears up for parallel state and general elections in 2024. There is intense speculation about the kind of stand his newspaper and news channel would now take against the government. “He has the resources and if he wants to, he can cause some damage to the party which has thrown him out. At the same time, the BJD leadership would only have taken action against him after carefully weighing the pros and cons,” said Mishra.
Ashutosh Mishra is an Odisha-based journalist.
This article was first published by The Wire and written by Ashutosh Mishra