An image problem

Print edition : August 27, 2004

Opposition parties in Orissa force Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to remove a Minister with an arrest warrant pending against her. But with reports that more names figure in the list of `tainted' legislators, Patnaik's image takes a beating.

in Bhubaneswar

Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik. His "clean image" is under threat.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

ORISSA Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik sought to protect the "clean image" of his government by asking Women and Child Development Minister Pramila Mallik, who has a non-bailable arrest warrant pending against her, to resign from the State Cabinet. By this move, he seemed to take some of the sting out the Opposition parties, which were preparing to raise the issue of tainted Ministers in the Assembly on July 26, following media reports that a warrant was pending against Mallik since 2003. But the very next day another media report brought to light a similar warrant pending against Higher Education Minister Samir Dey, providing the Opposition led by the Congress fresh ammunition to mount pressure on Patnaik to act. The Opposition demanded that Dey quit his ministerial post like Mallik.

The high drama over the pending warrants against Mallik and Dey brought to the fore several issues concerning politicians with criminal backgrounds as also the fissures in the ruling Biju Janata Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party alliance.

The warrant against Mallik, who is heading the BJD's women's wing, pertained to a case in which she allegedly led a mob that attacked Block Development Officer Siddharth Dhal at his office in Binjharpur, Jajpur district, in January 1999. The one against Dey was issued in a case relating to his participation in a roadblock agitation in 1995. The court of the Sub-Divisional Judicial Magistrate of Jajpur had issued the warrant against Mallik three times. But it was not executed until the media reported its pendency. The former Officer-in-Charge of Binjharpur police station, B.K. Jena, has now been suspended on the charge of suppressing the arrest warrant.

But unlike Patnaik, who sacrificed Mallik to protect his "clean image", the BJP stood firmly behind Dey maintaining that the case against him was not a serious one and that there was no question of his quitting the Cabinet.

Sensing the fractious situation in the ruling combine, the Opposition accused Patnaik of applying double standards. Raising the issue in the Assembly, the Opposition alleged that Mallik had been asked to resign because she happened to be a Dalit leader and a woman. It demanded a clarification on the warrant against Dey.

The issue took a different turn when Speaker Maheswar Mohanty ruled that no legislator with an arrest warrant against him or her could enter the Assembly. This led to a situation wherein Dey and a few other legislators had to keep away from the Assembly. When legislators expressed the fear that arrest warrants may be pending against them owing to some lapse on the part of the police, the Speaker asked the Law Minister to find out if non-bailable warrants were pending against any of the legislators and inform them accordingly.

Mohanty's ruling became a matter of public debate because until his election as Speaker, a non-bailable warrant was pending against him in a case pertaining to a demonstration in front of the Raj Bhavan in Bhubaneswar in 1984. The Congress promptly brought this to the fore. But Mohanty was saved by a High Court stay on the warrant.

Minister for Cooperation Surama Padhi, who is accused to torture in a dowry case.-

In fact, a number of State legislators have criminal cases pending against them. The BJD legislator from Pipili, Pradeep Maharathy, tops the list with 50-odd cases against him, relating to attempt to murder and dacoity, among other things. However, there is no arrest warrant pending against him, and he has not been convicted in any case.

Although the situation in Orissa pertaining to politicians with criminal background is not as bad as it is in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the State appears to be close to Bihar's record. Jana Adhikar Abhiyan, a non-governmental organisation that analysed the election affidavits of the candidates before the Assembly polls earlier this year, found that 135 of the 802 persons in the fray had criminal cases pending against them.

Curiously, of the 135 candidates six were women, 24 had degrees in law, and 30 belonged to the Congress, 22 to the BJD and 19 to the BJP. Many of these candidates won.

The Congress targeted, among others, Cooperation Minister and BJP leader Surama Padhi, who faces the charge of torturing her sister-in-law in a dowry case registered in 1993, one former Minister, and three legislators who are facing criminal cases. A few other senior Ministers in the alliance government too have cases pending against them.

The controversy over tainted Ministers not only gave the Congress some political mileage but created a bonhomie among Opposition politicians. However, aware of the fact that several of its own leaders were also facing criminal charges, the Congress later soft-pedalled the issue. "The law should take its own course," Leader of the Opposition J.B. Patnaik maintained.

The warrant against Mallik has since been quashed by the High Court. The court has also allowed a petition by Dey granting him exemption from personal appearance in one case. But the BJP Minister reportedly has arrest warrants pending against him in two other cases.

In the wake of reports about the pendency of arrest warrants against many legislators, the Chief Minister's image has taken a severe beating. Patnaik's helplessness in the case of Dey has affected his authority.

"Patnaik is maintaining double standards and is playing to the BJP's tune. He is surrounded by people with criminal backgrounds and his slogan of transparency is not put into practice," alleged Bijay Mohapatra, president of the Orissa Gana Parishad.

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