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A surge of dissidence

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST



A storm is brewing in the Biju Janata Dal in Orissa after Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik expanded his Ministry and took disciplinary action against three MPs of the party.

THE crisis in the ruling Biju Janata Dal in Orissa, which followed a ministerial reshuffle on August 7, deepened with the suspension of three Members of Parliament of the party for "anti-party" activities. The suspension of Jagannath Mallick, Prabhat Kumar Samantray and Kumudini Patnaik, who represent Jajpur, Kendrapara and Aska constituencies respectively, was aimed at pre-empting any move by the dissident MPs to split the 10-member BJD group in the Lok Sabha. Informed sources said that the group in the party that is opposed to Chief Minister and party president Naveen Patnaik is trying to win one more MP to its fold so that the suspended MPs can avoid disqualification under the anti-defection Act in case of a split. The sources said that two other MPs are critical of the party leadership. In order to prevent a formal split in the parliamentary party, Bishnupriya Behera, wife of party MP Padmanabha Behera, and Panchanan Kanungo, younger brother of Trilochan Kanungo, also an MP, were accommodated in the Ministry.

The suspended MPs launched an attack on Naveen Patnaik, describing him as "autocratic and repressive". Claiming the support of some more members in the Lok Sabha, they said they would take a decision later on whether to remain in the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) or not. They vowed to safeguard the interests of Orissa together with other MPs from the State.

"We will see what course of action is adopted by the Lok Sabha Speaker. After that we will take a decision on issues like continuing in the NDA," Samantray said. Dubbing Naveen Patnaik "incompetent and weak", the three MPs said in a statement that Orissa had seen no development under his chief ministership. They alleged that for the last three years, BJD MPs had been forced to remain silent on important issues because Naveen Patnaik felt "threatened" whenever they raised their voice "for the interest of the State". Claiming that they were suspended without issuing a show-cause notice, the MPs said the action was apparently taken because Naveen Patnaik could not tolerate the recent meeting of some BJD MPs with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee in order to submit some demands in the State's interest.

The suspension of the MPs assumes significance as one of them, Kumudini Patnaik, is the wife of senior BJD leader and former State Finance Minister Ramakrushna Patnaik. Angry with the Chief Minister's decision to shift him to the Agriculture Ministry, Ramakrushna Patnaik resigned from the BJD-BJP coalition government.

Another Minister who was dropped, Duryodhan Majhi, has launched an offensive against the Chief Minister. In the past Majhi has criticised the Chief Minister for the latter's lack of fluency in the Oriya language and his dependence on the bureaucracy for the running of the administration.

Naveen Patnaik told Frontline that the suspended MPs had engaged in anti-party activities during the panchayat and Rajya Sabha polls this year. "Enough time was given to them to stop activities inimical to the interests of the BJD, but since they persisted with them, there was no option but to suspend them," Patnaik said. He added that the suspensions would have no impact on either the party or the government in Orissa.

General secretary and spokesperson of the BJD, Damodar Rout, said the suspended MPs had challenged the leadership and even spoken to the media about their plan to split the parliamentary party. According to Rout, BJD district presidents, MLAs and other party workers in the constituencies of the three MPs had repeatedly lodged complaints with the party president regarding their non-cooperative attitude.

Informed sources said that the immediate provocation for the suspension was the MPs' meeting with Vajpayee on July 24 in New Delhi, without informing the party leadership. Six BJD MPs met the Prime Minister, ostensibly to submit a memorandum on the drought situation in Orissa. They included, apart from the suspended persons, Prasanna Patsani, Prasanna Acharya and Bhartruhari Mahtab. Of the suspended MPs, Samantray is a known critic of Naveen Patnaik's style of functioning while Jagannath Mallick became a dissident after his claim for a berth in the Union Council of Ministers was ignored.

After the meeting with the Prime Minister, Samantray criticised the party chief for his alleged dictatorial methods and for "gagging" party leaders sympathetic to Orissa's interests. In the memorandum to the Prime Minister, the six MPs had sought a five-year moratorium on interest payments, a revision of coal royalty rates and the early operationalisation of the East Coast railway zone. Vajpayee reportedly agreed to revise the royalty rates for coal and promised to convene a meeting after Parliament's monsoon session to sort out the problems of the Paradeep oil refinery. "Naveen took this as a challenge to his leadership. As Union Minister for Coal and Mines in 1999, he had refused to revise the coal royalty rates for Orissa. Sensing that his hypocrisy has been exposed, he suspended us," said Samantray.

THE BJD under Naveen Patnaik has seen the exit of several senior leaders. The first to be expelled was Bijoy Mohapatra, a founder-member. He was followed by another founder-member, Dilip Ray. Ray, a former Union Minister, contested the Rajya Sabha election as an independent candidate in March, after he was denied the party ticket, and won with the support of some rebel BJD MLAs and also eight MLAs belonging to the BJP. Mohapatra and Ray were close aides of former Chief Minister Biju Patnaik.

The dissidence within the BJD following the reshuffle has opened new opportunities for Ray and Mohapatra to woo some of the MLAs to their camp. Groups of frustrated ministerial aspirants have started confabulations. Several such meetings were organised by Duryodhan Majhi.

Naveen Patnaik is now reportedly contemplating action against the dissidents at the State level. Informed sources said that the dissident MLAs, who number about 14, are trying to reach the magic figure of 24 to split the BJD and prevent disqualification. The BJD has 70 members in the 147-member Assembly. Party circles believe that dissident activities will now get a boost following the suspension of the MPs. Ramakrushna Patnaik is expected to come to the aid of the dissidents, after falling out with the Chief Minister.

The election of Dilip Ray to the Rajya Sabha had created a new dissident camp, which includes Bijoy Mohapatra who was expelled in controversial circumstances just before the Assembly elections in February 2000. Naveen Patnaik had issued Mohapatra the party ticket to contest the elections. But on the last date for the filing of nominations, Patnaik chose another person. Patnaik's calculated action left Mohapatra little time to complete the formalities required to contest even as an independent.

Within six months of his expulsion, Mohapatra floated a new political forum, the Orissa Gana Parishad. The OGP was backed by the Janata Dal (United) and the Janata Dal (Secular), besides some disgruntled BJP leaders. The OGP is the sixth regional party in the State's political history. The Ganatantra Parishad, the first regional party, was formed in 1950 by Rajendra Narayan Singhdeo, and the party ruled Orissa in coalition with the Congress from 1957 to 1960 with Singhdeo as Chief Minister. In 1966, Harekrishna Mahatab left the Congress to form the Jana Congress, which formed the government with the support of the Swatantra Party after the 1967 Assembly elections.

It was in power for two years. Biju Patnaik formed the Utkal Congress in 1969. Although Patnaik was defeated in the elections that year, his party, along with the Jharkhand Party and the Swatantra Party, formed the government with Biswanath Das, a non-controversial independent member, as Chief Minister. The government fell within a year and the Congress came to power after a fresh round of elections. The fourth regional party, the Jagrata Orissa, was formed in 1985 by Nandini Satpathy. In the Assembly elections later that year, Satpathy was elected but all other candidates of her party lost. The fifth regional party, the BJD, was formed by Naveen Patnaik in 1998.

Soon after his election as Rajya Sabha member, Dilip Ray reportedly began making moves to split the BJD with the help of over 12 rebel MLAs. He was, in fact, partly successful in creating a rift in the BJD-BJP coalition. A powerful group in the State unit of the BJP wants the party to pull out of the Naveen Patnaik government and provide only outside support as it is "disgusted with the government's non-performance and the Chief Minister's style of functioning". The conflict between the two parties reached a crisis point during the panchayat elections early this year. Signs of the rift were evident when the coalition partners failed to arrive at a seat-sharing formula. As a result, the BJP performed miserably and also spoiled the BJD's chances in several places, much to the advantage of the Congress(I).

A senior BJD leader said that a mere Cabinet expansion would not placate the rebels as the party had become a "personal fief" of Naveen Patnaik. "Can you offer ministerial berths to two dozen MLAs?" he asked.

Patnaik's troubles have stemmed from his failure to ensure the smooth functioning of the ruling alliance. His attempts to eliminate his rivals politically only escalated infighting and factionalism. Now, the combined strength of the expelled leaders can pose a serious threat to the Chief Minister's position.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 14, 2002.)



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