Updated: December 17, 2021 7:18:27 am
As Odisha heads for panchayat elections, the ruling BJD is brazening out the Opposition protests over the murder of a teacher.
The protests by the Opposition demanding the resignation of Minister of State for Home and Energy Dibya Shankar Mishra, claiming his links to the main accused Gobind Sahu, recently forced the Assembly to shut down 20 days ahead of schedule.
Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, however, is standing by Mishra. In his only remark, two months after the murder, the CM released a video statement during the Assembly session asking for proof if any against the minister. He also shared the stage with Mishra on November 9 at an event in Kalahandi, the district to which the teacher belonged.
Sahu is accused of strangling the 26-year-old teacher on October 8 and burying her body in an under-construction stadium near her school. He was arrested on October 19. Following the arrest, the Opposition released photographs of Mishra with Sahu (both belong to Kalahandi), including at a function of the educational institute run by Sahu.
Mishra has denied the charges, saying his presence at an event was not indicative of anything and that “public representatives are supposed to attend functions in educational institutions”. A former IAF pilot, Mishra won his first election in 2014, and is a first-time minister, given Independent charge.
Questioning Patnaik’s support for Mishra, BJP national vice-president and former BJD leader Baijayant Jay Panda told The Indian Express: “This is a very different Naveen Patnaik from the one who won hearts back in the late ’90s. In his first 14 years or so of being CM, he dropped ministers or took action against officers at the first whiff of a scandal. For the past seven or eight years, that is no longer the case. And the number of tainted ministers in the Odisha cabinet continues to grow.”
During the first tenure of Patnaik, now CM for 21 years, 10 ministers were shown the door, most of them over corruption charges.
Mishra is the third minister who has faced serious allegations in the past one year, after Agriculture and Higher Education Minister Arun Sahoo, and Law Minister Pratap Jena. Sahoo and Jena too continue in their posts.
Saying that Mishra faced serious allegations, Panda added that the BJD is not bothered because it now rules the state ruthlessly, on muscle power and money power.
Senior Congress leader Panchanan Kanungo, who was also a part of the BJD in its formative years, said that during the rape case which led to the downfall of the J B Patnaik government in the state, “Naveen Patnaik had gone to the police station himself to ensure that an FIR was registered”. “The teacher’s case is grave. This may be a turning point for him.”
However, the BJD for now sits pretty, having so far managed to avert any serious impact of the cases against its ministers on its poll prospects. In 2019, despite a rigorous campaign by the BJP, the BJD had won 112 of the 174 Assembly seats, with the BJP at 23. All the three recent bypolls, including in a seat that the BJP had got in 2019, were won by the BJD by big margins, one as recently as October.
The BJD has largely retained its control in the state, through measures such as smart health cards, with senior leaders and the CM visiting constituencies to announce projects. Patnaik, who is believed to keep ill health, controls the government through a trusted set of bureaucrats. The entire second rung of the BJD has quit over the years, leaving none as a credible challenger to him.
BJP leaders themselves are not too confident of the effect the teacher case will have in the panchayat elections, to be held in February, with the issue not gaining much traction among the public. Senior BJP leader Bijoy Mohapatra, who was also in the BJD once, said: “It will have a slight impact in the home district where the incident happened.”
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