In an era of coalition politics when anyone can throw his hat into the ring, Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik is but a natural contender to head a potential third front. Some suggestions from influential non-Congress, non-BJP politicians to that effect are already a matter of record. Recognition of his contribution has come from as far as the United Nations and by the looks of it the low profile boss of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) has things going for him.
If the three-time chief minister is still not smiling, it is because of troubles in his home state, problems which are creations of his colleagues and bureaucrats.
State governments often carp against the central government’s step-motherly attitude but rarely do they stand down as it happened in this case. In the last session of the Odisha legislative assembly, revenue and disaster management minister Surya Narayan Patro alleged that the centre has so far released only Rs 250 crore as interim assistance despite Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s announcement promising Rs 1,000 crore. That was enough signals for BJD MLAs to step up the offensive against the centre.
It was also the chance Congress was waiting for. Their MLAs hotly contended that Rs 750 crore had already disbursed to the state under the interim assistance programme. Embarrassingly, for Naveen, his minister did a u-turn. He confirmed the Congress MLAs’ charge, but added not-too-cleverly that its sanction had not been uploaded on the ministry of finance, neither had the revenue department received a copy of the order. “I revised my statement in view of the facts after I contacted the finance department since the issue was raised by the Congress members,” minister Patro said. He, however, maintained that the state had so far received Rs 750 crore from the National Disaster Relief Fund (NDRF). Politically it has been damaging for the chief minister to have a senior minister caught red handed misleading the house.
The Congress has been on the offensive since then, demanding Patro’s resignation. Along with BJP legislators, they have stalled house business, resorted to sloganeering and intruded on the assembly speaker’s dais. Left with no option, ruling party legislators proposed that the session be ended and that is what happened - speaker Pradip Kumar Amat adjourned the house sine die after a motion moved by government chief whip Pravat Tripathy.
Not satisfied with the ruling party’s arbitrary move, opposition members met state governor S C Jamir and urged him to call for video clippings of the house to ascertain the truth. Jamir – a veteran of North East politics - summoned the assembly secretary over abrupt ending of the winter session; all in all pretty unsavory.
“The government is willfully avoiding the assembly and engaging in unconstitutional practices, ducking debates on major issues,” says Prasad Harichandan, chief whip of Congress legislative party.
According to official records, during 13 years of BJD rule, the assembly has not been able to fulfill the norm of 60 sitting days in a calendar year as prescribed in Rule 11 of the Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business with the exception of 2006, 2010 and 2012.
Defending the government, BJD chief whip Pravat Tripathy clarifies, “Though 60 sitting days is mandatory, depending on the opinion of the house, curtailment can be done. This is a standard parliamentary practice across the country.”
This controversy was barely beginning to subside when a couple of days later, the state election commission (SEC) held finance minister Prasanna Acharya guilty of violating the model code of conduct during the recently-concluded municipal elections in western Odisha.
At a public meeting at Bargarh on November 17, Acharya had allegedly threatened voters that he in his capacity as finance minister would choke the flow of funds to the area if they voted for the Congress. The SEC, which started a formal probe after receiving complaints from opposition MLAs, was charged with intentionally delaying the process of investigation.
A Congress delegation met Jamir and demanded the SEC’s resignation on grounds of favouring the ruling party. SEC Ajit Tripathy is a former Odisha chief secretary. Soon after, the SEC issued asking him to “Be cautious in future.”
There was more in store. Recommendations of National Women Commission (NCW) in the Tikri teacher death case are likely to corner the Patnaik government even further. According to the police, miscreants had poured kerosene on a 27-year-old teacher Itishree Pradhan and set her ablaze in Rayagada district’s Tikri. She later succumbed to her injuries.
Pradhan had earlier lodged complaints of sexual harassment at the local police station against sub-inspector of schools Netrananda Dandsena. Her quest for justice had taken her to the chief minister, DGP, district collector and the SP, all to no avail. In her last recorded statement the teacher had blamed Naveen Patnaik, school and mass education minister Rabi Narayan Nanda and local BJD MP Jayaram Pangi as being responsible for her condition.
The NCW team after a spot visit has cited grounds for a CBI probe as it included alleged involvement of powerful people of the ruling establishment, failure to arrest the main culprit and allegations of destruction of evidence. NCW has suggested exemplary action against Rayagada Collector and SP.
In a letter sent to the chief secretary, the NCW has demanded an 'Action Taken Report' within a week failing which he would be summoned before them. The commission had also asked the government to place the report on the floor of the assembly – luckily for the government the session ended abruptly
As is the norm in such cases, the only ones who have got the sack are four middle-level government officers. They include inspector-in-charge of the Tikiri police station Sujit Kumar Say, assistant sub-inspector Muralidhar Pradhan, district inspector of schools Dharanidhar Behera and school inspector Netrananda Dandasena, also an accused in the case.
The problem for Naveen Patnaik is this: his clean image, which is also his USP, is under the scanner for now. The chief minister is famous for not sparing anybody when his clean image needs protection; this time though there is quiet on that front.
Importantly for Naveen Patnaik and the state, the Lok Sabha elections next year may coincide with the assembly polls in Odisha, so in a sense, he has a twin mandate to handle. Then, will these factors hold? Says Sampad Mohapatra, senior journalist and political analyst: “There is no doubt that these issues will continue to persist in public mind till elections but its impact could not be widespread as the opposition Congress has failed to project a suitable alternative.”
According to Odisha Congress vice-president Sivananda Ray,“Not only are BJD ministers incompetent and apathetic towards problems of the common man, they are also very corrupt. Women are no longer safe under this government as sexual violence against women has increased under Naveen’s rule.’’ Despite the obvious embarrassment to BJD government, it appears difficult to prevent him for coming back for a fourth time