Under a cloud

Print edition : April 25, 2008

Naveen Patnaik. The Chief Minister was under severe pressure to take action.-ASHOKE CHADRABARTY

The Assembly Speaker resigns after accusations of sexual harassment against him and the alleged role of a Minister rock the government.

ALMOST everything was going smoothly for Orissa Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. He had come out unscathed from several controversies surrounding his administration since he assumed power in 2000. He had warded off many accusations effortlessly and maintained his Mr. Clean image.

Then, in the last week of March, Patnaik came under pressure as never before when a suspended woman Assistant Marshal of the State Assembly, Gayatri Panda, brought sexual harassment charges against the Speaker, Maheswar Mohanty. Mohanty quit his post amid mounting protests from Opposition parties and women activists.

Patnaik has earned a reputation for being clean and he is feared as the leader of the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) as he has never hesitated to take stern action against erring or tainted Ministers.

Patnaik, it is said, would sack anybody from his Ministry in order to save his own skin or the image of the BJD and the BJD-Bharatiya Janata Party government.

However, the first sexual harassment controversy to rock his Ministry saw the tough Chief Minister dither a bit before initiating action against the accused, primarily because it involved the Speaker and a close associate of Patnaik, a Minister who was accused of instigating the woman marshal.

Five days after the scandal pushed his government into turbulence, Patnaik sacked Information and Public Relations Minister Debasis Nayak without giving him a chance to resign on his own. The Chief Minister sent an official note to Governor Murlidhar Chandrakant Bhandare recommending the removal of Nayak. He said he dropped the Minister since he had lost confidence in him.

Mohantys resignation took place simultaneously. He said that he quit his post as the issue had rocked the Assembly, which was in session, and affected the dignity of the Chair. His disciplinary action against an undisciplined employee (the marshal was suspended) had resulted in her levelling false and baseless allegations against him, he insisted.

Maheswar Mohanty, who resigned as Speaker. (Right) Debasis Nayak, the Minister who was sacked.-ASHOKE CHADRABARTY

In the past, Patnaik has dismissed three Ministers; four of his Ministers were forced to quit under controversial circumstances. Half a dozen of his ministerial colleagues were shown the door at different points of time. Most of the Ministers who were relieved of their responsibilities during the past eight years belonged to the BJD.

The latest controversy began on the night of March 25 when some television channels flashed news clips in which the suspended woman marshal was shown levelling sexual harassment charges against Mohanty.

As soon as the House assembled the next morning, Mohanty read out a statement on his own denying the allegations. He, however, said that since the charges were of a serious nature he would not preside over the Assembly proceedings until the matter was investigated.

While suggesting that a House Committee be set up to inquire into the matter, Mohanty alleged that a conspiracy had been hatched to defame him and that some important persons were behind it. He said he would tell the whole story before the House Committee. The matter did not end there. In fact, Mohantys statement added fuel to the controversy.

The Opposition parties soon began to stall the proceedings. They demanded that no business of the Assembly should be held until the Speaker resigned from the post in order to facilitate an independent probe into the matter.

The next day, Opposition legislators occupied the Speakers podium as soon as the House assembled. Deputy Speaker Prahallad Dora, who was to take the Chair, waited at the entrance to the podium for more than an hour before finally returning to his chamber.

Despite desperate efforts by members of the ruling alliance and Dora to restore order, the Assembly proceedings were disrupted for four days with the Opposition legislators firm on their demand for the resignation of the Speaker and the institution of an independent inquiry into the scandal. They argued that a House Committee could not look into the matter as the issue involved the Speaker himself. The Opposition MLAs also demanded that the inquiry should probe the allegations made by the Speaker that the smear campaign was motivated by some important people.

While the House witnessed high drama over the issue, outside the Assembly there was no let-up in the controversy.

A demonstration by women activists in front of the Assembly seeking action against Mohanty.-ASHOKE CHADRABARTY

Panda sent her complaint to a womens police station through a group of women activists. She alleged that the Speaker had made vulgar gestures at her several times. She even said that he had sent a vehicle to her house in the night and tried to persuade her through his driver and other staff to have sexual relations with him.

Since Panda did not lodge the complaint herself, the police took two days to verify her signature on the one-page plea and finally registered a case against the Speaker under Sections 506 (criminal intimidation), 507 (similar intimidation through telephone), 509 (lewd suggestions and obscene remarks) and 34 (common object) of the Indian Penal Code (IPC).

As the standoff continued, Patnaik left for New Delhi to attend a meeting of Chief Ministers of the mineral-bearing States. The controversy showed no sign of dying down until he returned on the third day.

Meanwhile, in Puri, the Speakers home constituency, BJD supporters of Mohanty took out a rally to protest against the slur cast on their leader, while Congress workers took out a rally demanding the Speakers resignation. Mohantys supporters squarely blamed Nayak, alleging that he had instigated Panda to make the allegations against their leader.

Some BJD workers also staged a demonstration in Bhubaneswar and made a strong demand for the resignation of Nayak. The cracks within the BJD became visible, and Naveen Patnaik, as the partys president, was clearly in a fix.

With the controversy raging and demonstrations taking place against Mohanty and Nayak, the Assembly was adjourned sine die on March 31, two days ahead of schedule, after the State Budget for 2008-09 by voice vote. It was then that Patnaik was virtually forced to act tough.

Mohanty tendered his resignation hours after the Assembly was adjourned. The Chief Ministers recommendation to the Governor was sent around the same time and it was also accepted immediately. But the controversy did not end with the resignation of Mohanty and the ouster of Nayak. It got further complicated.

A protest by activists of the Opposition Nationalist Congress Party.-PTI

The Opposition parties, which were in an upbeat mood as they sensed that the controversy had the potential to damage the image of the Chief Minister and his government, demanded a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the matter. The government readily agreed to this demand. Meanwhile, womens organisations stepped up their demand that Mohanty be arrested.

In an attempt to cash in on the controversy, the Opposition parties also announced that they would take the matter to the people. With the Assembly elections just a year away, the controversy is likely to affect the prospects of the ruling combine if it does not come to an end soon.

Everything will now depend on whether the suspended marshal fights it out or succumbs to pressure for a compromise.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor