The steady rise, and sharp fall of BJD lawmaker Pradeep Panigrahy
Till less than a year before Pradeep Panigrahy’s expulsion from the party on Sunday and his arrest soon after, the Biju Janata Dal legislator was considered the first among equals in the 23-year-old regional party and one of the very few with direct access to chief minister Naveen Patnaik.
That Patnaik immensely trusted the 56-year-old Panigrahy became clear back in 2004 when the chief minister named him to oversee his assembly constituency Hinjili in Ganjam district for nearly a decade. Panigrahy delivered and was rewarded with a party ticket in 2009 from the seaside Gopalpur constituency from where he has won on a trot three times.
The dream run 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 holding disproportionate assets. The Pathak family had come to the notice of investigators for flying in and out of Odisha in chartered planes on at least 20 occasions during the Covid lockdown. The MLA, who also travelled with them on many occasions, faces charges of cheating, forgery and impersonation. Before he was arrested, Panigrahy insisted that he was innocent but the police don’t believe him.
There was a time when this would have been unthinkable. Ramesh Chandra Chyaupatnaik, president of BJD in Ganjam district, recalls the influence that Panigrahy wielded. “While we needed an appointment to meet the CM, Panigrahy did not because the CM was fond of him. He had earned the CM’s trust,” said. Ahead of the 2019 assembly elections, Panigrahy was given charge of 12 of the 15 assembly constituencies of the undivided Ganjam district.
Unlike many politicians of Odisha who worked their way up, BJD leaders said Panigrahy, who had been president of the Berhampur University Students’ Union in 1994, had it easy. He had a very humble beginning as an advocate in the local courts, but it was the ambition that set him apart from fellow lawyers.
When the Tatas came to Ganjam to build a 10 million tonne port-based steel plant in Gopalpur in association with Nippon Steel of Japan, Panigrahy was among the first to sell his land for the project that others from the area were opposing. It helped the JB Patnaik government tide over the public agitation and was followed by the government acquiring around 3,000 acres of the land under the emergency clause of Land Acquisition Act in 1997-98. The proposed steel plant, however, never took off and Tatas, a few years ago, turned it into SEZ.
Former Chhatrapur MLA N Narayan Reddy, who played a crucial role in the public agitation against the Tatas, said Panigrahy seemed to parachute to power. “Any grassroots politician would have supported the public agitation against a corporate. But Panigrahy did not help... Santosh Satpathy, then district collector of Ganjam had introduced Panigrahy to JB Patnaik as he had expressed solidarity for Tata’s land acquisition,” said Reddy.
After Naveen Patnaik became chief minister for the first time in 2000, Panigrahy was made president of Berhampur central cooperative bank. A few years later, he became the chief minister’s nominee to nurture the Hinjili assembly constituency which fuelled his rise in the party.
Among all the BJD politicians of Ganjam, he was the youngest at that time and educated too. By most accounts, he soon became the chief minister’s favourite too. Despite his faltering English, it was his can-do ability that probably endeared him to the anglophile chief minister. His stock also went up when in 2003 he obtained Ph.D in law from Berhampur University on “Conservation of Biodiversity under International Law with special reference to Law in India”.
In 2006, his name cropped up in a hooch tragedy of Ganjam involving the death 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.
He won. But the victory, Pradeep Panigrahy’s rivals and party colleagues said, seemed to change him. It was the arrogance of power, said Ganjam BJD leaders. There were also allegations that were levelled at him.
President of BJP’s Ganjam district unit, Bibhuti Jena, who lost to him in the 2019 assembly election, said Panigrahy had always been rude to people. “He used official machinery to browbeat his opponents as well as common people. The BJD too turned a blind eye to his actions,” said Jena.
As per Panigrahy’s own admission early this week, Patnaik told him not to bother about his Hinjili constituency in 2013 that BJD leaders said would ordinarily have implied a loss of trust. But, in 2014, Patnaik made him minister of three departments including the rural development, higher education and science and technology. He was dropped from the cabinet in 2017 but was still seen to be powerful. He was made BJD’s Ganjam district president in 2015 despite the district having 3 senior cabinet ministers. In 2019, he was made responsible for 15 assembly constituencies of undivided Ganjam district in recognition of his organisational skills.
His troubles started soon after when he was blamed for the party’s defeat in 3 of the 15 constituencies. He retained his own seat Gopalpur by a slim margin of 2,600 votes, the lowest margin in Ganjam district. There were allegations that he had sabotaged the BJD’s prospects in these constituencies. BJD leaders said they noticed that his access to the chief minister ended soon after. His rivals within the party had claimed he was in talks with BJP for a possible switch.
Political analyst Rabi Das said Panigrahy was perhaps the last BJD politician who enjoyed unfettered access to the chief minister who had come to depend on his team of trusted bureaucrats. “He was among the senior BJD MLAs whom the coterie wanted to be cut down to size. In the BJD’s churn, Panigrahy was up against a powerful section,” said Das.
That he was out of favour became evident when he wrote several letters to the chief minister, to demand that Odisha bring back migrant workers from Gujarat during Covid lockdown and then to complain that the state government was ignoring local MLAs in the fight against Covid-19.
“I raised the issues of mismanagement in Covid centres as well as the treatment procedures of Covid patients. This probably did not go down well with some bureaucrats,” Panigrahy said days before his arrest. Now in jail over charges of forgery, the 56-year-old politician may have to fall back on his legal acumen to see him through the troubled days.