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Opinion

The Steady Rise and Steep Fall of BJD Legislator Pradeep Panigrahy

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Until less than a year before Pradeep Panigrahy’s expulsion from the party on Sunday and his arrest shortly after, Biju lawmaker Janata Dal was considered the first among equals in the 23-year-old regional party and one of the few with direct access to Prime Minister Naveen Patnaik.

That Patnaik trusted Panigrahy, 56, immensely, became clear in 2004 when the prime minister appointed him to oversee his Hinjili assembly constituency in Ganjam district for nearly a decade. Panigrahy complied and was rewarded with a party ticket in 2009 from the coastal constituency of Gopalpur, from where he trotted three times.

The dream race ended this week when Panigrahy was arrested by police officers investigating Indian Forest Service officer Abhay Pathak and his son Akash Pathak, who were arrested last week on charges of disproportionate possession of assets. The Pathak family had come to the knowledge of investigators by flying in and out of Odisha on chartered planes on at least 20 occasions during the Covid lockdown. The MLA, who also traveled with them on many occasions, faces charges of cheating, forgery and identity theft. Before being arrested, Panigrahy insisted that he was innocent, but the police do not believe him.

There was a time when this would have been unthinkable. Ramesh Chandra Chyaupatnaik, chairman of BJD in Ganjam district, recalls the influence that Panigrahy wielded. “While we needed an appointment to meet the CM, Panigrahy didn’t do it because the CM wanted him. He had earned the CM’s trust, ”he said. Prior to the 2019 assembly elections, Panigrahy took over 12 of the 15 electoral districts of the assembly from the undivided district of Ganjam.

Unlike many Odisha politicians who broke through, BJD leaders said Panigrahy, who had been president of the University of Berhampur Student Union in 1994, had it easy. He had a very humble beginning as a lawyer in local courts, but it was ambition that set him apart from his fellow lawyers.

When the Tatas came to Ganjam to build a 10 million ton port-based steel plant at Gopalpur in partnership with Japan’s Nippon Steel, Panigrahy was one of the first to sell their land for the project to which others in the area were opposed. It helped the JB Patnaik government overcome public unrest and was followed by the acquisition of around 3,000 acres of land under the emergency clause of the Land Acquisition Act in 1997-98. However, the proposed steel plant never took off and Tatas, a few years ago, converted it into an EEZ.

Former Chhatrapur MLA N Narayan Reddy, who played a crucial role in the public upheaval against the Tatas, said Panigrahy appeared to parachute to power. “Any grassroots politician would have supported public agitation against a company. But Panigrahy didn’t help … Santosh Satpathy, then Ganjam district collector, introduced Panigrahy to JB Patnaik, as he had expressed his solidarity with the Tata land acquisition, ”Reddy said.

After Naveen Patnaik became prime minister for the first time in 2000, Panigrahy was appointed president of the Berhampur Central Cooperative Bank. A few years later, he became the prime minister’s candidate to nurture the constituency of the Hinjili assembly that fueled his rise in the party.

Among all the politicians in Ganjam’s BJD, he was the youngest at the time and also educated. By most accounts, he soon became the prime minister’s favorite too. Despite his wavering English, it was his ability to do what probably made the Anglophile prime minister want him. His stock also increased when in 2003 he obtained a Juris Doctorate from the University of Berhampur on “Biodiversity Conservation under International Law with Special Reference to Law in India”.

In 2006, his name came up in the Ganjam tragedy that involved the deaths of 40 people, but a commission of inquiry cleared him of any role 2 years later. In 2009, he got the BJD ticket for the first time from Gopalpur.

Won. But the victory, Pradeep Panigrahy’s rivals and teammates said, seemed to change him. It was the arrogance of power, the leaders of Ganjam BJD said. There were also accusations that were directed at him.

BJP Ganjam District Unit Chairman Bibhuti Jena, who lost to him in the 2019 assembly elections, said that Panigrahy had always been rude to people. “He used official machinery to intimidate his opponents as well as ordinary people. The BJD also turned a blind eye to their actions, ”Jena said.

By Panigrahy’s own admission earlier this week, Patnaik told him not to worry about his Hinjili constituency in 2013 that BJD leaders said would normally have involved a loss of confidence. But in 2014, Patnaik appointed him minister of three departments, including rural development, higher education, and science and technology. He was removed from the cabinet in 2017, but was still considered powerful. He was appointed chairman of the Ganjam district of BJD in 2015 despite the district having 3 high-level cabinet ministers. In 2019, he was appointed head of 15 constituencies of the Ganjam Undivided District Assembly in recognition of his organizing skills.

His troubles began shortly after, when he was blamed for the party’s defeat in 3 of the 15 electoral districts. He retained his own seat in Gopalpur by a narrow margin of 2,600 votes, the lowest margin in the Ganjam district. There were accusations that he had sabotaged the BJD’s prospects in these constituencies. BJD leaders said they noticed that their accession to the prime minister ended shortly after. His rivals within the party had claimed he was in talks with BJP for a possible change.

Political analyst Rabi Das said that Panigrahy was perhaps the last BJD politician to enjoy unlimited access to the prime minister who had come to rely on his team of trusted bureaucrats. “He was among the senior MLA BJDs that the clique wanted to downsize. In the BJD rotation, Panigrahy faced a powerful section, “said Das.

That he was in disgrace became apparent when he wrote several letters to the chief minister, to demand that Odisha bring the migrant workers from Gujarat during the Covid shutdown and later to complain that the state government was ignoring local MLAs in the fight against Covid. -19. .

“I raised the issues of mismanagement at Covid centers, as well as the treatment procedures for Covid patients. This probably didn’t sit well with some bureaucrats, ”Panigrahy said days before his arrest. Now in jail on forgery charges, the 56-year-old politician may have to call on his legal acumen to help him get through the tough days.

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