'Writing Modi off will be fallacious'

DH EXCLUSIVE: Interview with Baijayant 'Jay' Panda

Baijayant 'Jay' Panda, a politician of two decades, quit the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD seven months ago and has been touring Odisha before taking a call on his next political move. Whether to join a party or start a new one is one question that Panda ponders over these days. Once a close associate of Patnaik, Panda believes that the BJD moved away from its core principles and that was one reason that he decided to quit. A keen observer of politics, he believes the 2019 polls is now a contest after the recent Assembly election results and other developments. With his new book 'Lutyens' Maverick: Ground Realities, Hard Choices and Tomorrow's India' all set to hit stands, Panda spoke to DH's Shemin Joy.

You have been an MP for 18 years. What are the changes you noticed in the way politics was conducted? How has politics has changed in these years?

I think it is a continuation of what has happened for the previous 50 years also. There was a gradual decay in the standards of Parliamentary performance and debate. There was also a slide in decency politicians used to show to each other. It has become very uncivil. I don't want to say that it happened in only these last 19 years. It has been going on for several decades. In my time, I have seen a further decline in the standards of Parliament. There are more disruptions and less debate. I have argued that we are wrong to attribute the blame to persons and individuals. It is more of a systemic thing. Systemic incentive and disincentives encourage people to do this. I have argued for a change of Parliamentary rules precisely because of this. Most of our Parliamentary rules are from the late 19th century based on the provisions in the United Kingdom and the United States. Those countries themselves have reformed their legislatures. We should do similar things to modernise. I have used an example of traffic signals. In Delhi 100 years ago, you did not need traffic lights. People were civil and there was not enough traffic. But today if you don't have traffic lights, traffic will be chaotic. There is much more traffic now, people are more aggressive on the roads. We need similar updating in the rules of Parliament.

You have been arguing that there should be a tweaking of powers Rajya Sabha enjoy. But keeping the diversity of India, is it a good idea to reduce the powers of the Upper House of Parliament?

People are misunderstanding what I am saying. Many people have misrepresented that I want to do away with the Rajya Sabha. Not at all. I have served two terms in Rajya Sabha and I am very proud of that. It serves a crucial purpose. But I will tell you where the problem is. It is important to have two Houses of Parliament. One should be the House of the People, the Lok Sabha, which reflects the popular mood and popular will. It should have some primacy. The other is an indirectly elected House or a directly elected House as the US has which urges caution so that things are not rashly in the heat of the moment. In the 19th century, there was Victorian civility in the UK and the US. So these rules were not clear. Both Houses had a veto then. If the House of the People decided to pass a law, the Upper House could stop that legislation. Now, in a more combative environment, what it does is that it defeats the will of the people. So the theory, this is what I support, is the Upper House should act a break but not as a full stop. Why should it be a break? The break is to cool down passion. Suppose, if there is some Bill the Lower House has passed a Bill in haste, then it may be bad for the country. Upper House should slow it down. But the ability to completely stop it means you are defying democracy. In the UK now, the Upper House can slow legislation for one year but it cannot stop it after that. This means if the Lower House is doing something rashly, whether it is a Triple Talaq Bill or whether it is something else, if you think it is rash, you can slow it down so that people can think about it more. But if you have the power to completely stop it, it means you have the power to stop the will of the people. This is the reform other countries have done. We should also do that.

Do you think post-2014, India has moved further Right as we witnessed in Europe. The Triple Talaq Bill is here, there is more noise about Ram Temple, there are lynchings. What is your view?

I think over the course of last three decades, since the Shah Bano judgement in 1986, India has moved both to the Right and the Left. There are certain political parties which have moved from the Centre to the Left. There are certain other parties which have moved from centre-right to further Right. Now, I don't think Triple Talaq Bill as a rightist move because every democracy should give equal rights to every citizen and the Uniform Civil Code is enshrined in the Directive Principles of the Constitution. So trying to legislate a Directive Principle cannot be seen as against the Constitution. Yes, the lynchings are horrible things that happened. Some of these are in fact related to religion-related activism such as those related to beef. Some of them are related to the break down of law and order. For example, suspected kidnappers are beaten to death even if they are not real kidnappers. This is has nothing to do with the Right or the Left. It is to do with the public losing faith in the police and judicial system. They are taking law into their own hands. Either of this is wrong. We have to severely condemn this, which I have done. We can strengthen action against this. But again we have to have some fundamental changes because we have a terrible shortage of police personnel in the country. We have a terrible shortage of judges in the country. We have some systemic flaws which are holding up the cases.

You have seen politics in the last two decades from close quarters. How do you see the ground shaping up for 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

I think because of the developments in the recent months the 2019 elections have again become a contest. One year ago, it was not seen as a contest. At the beginning of 2018, it was more or less seen as a fait accompli for the NDA and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Today, it is no longer seen as a fait accompli. It has again become a contest against the backdrop of the recent election results and trends in recent times. I would still like to say, it is very early because elections are still 4-5 months away and a week is a long time in politics. It now depends on who is able to use this time better. For example, Rahul Gandhi was written for many years. He was the butt of jokes and memes. But he has persistence. He stuck on despite many setbacks over several years. And today he is being very aggressive and he is getting some traction. Modi was seen as invincible and is perhaps the best political communicator we have seen in a generation. At least since A B Vajpayee. Modi is the most powerful Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi. So to write him off would be very fallacious. I think there is an opportunity for both Modi and his chief opponents to seize the moment now. So who does what in the next two months will be very decisively.

How do you see the Opposition unity shaping up?

Under Modi, BJP has shifted into pole position. Earlier also it was in government but it was never the largest party in the country. It has the largest number of states under it. In India's first-past-the-post system, the largest party has about one-third of the votes, say 35-40% votes. If all the others come together, they can beat the largest party. We have seen it at the state and national level. But combining everybody is not so easy, particularly pre-election. Out of compulsion, post-election people may come together. the In pre-election scenario, there are many different ideologies, there are so many clashing egos, it is not easy. You have seen the coming together of parties in some by-elections and state elections. Can it happen in a national election? I will say it is not easy. If it happens, it will have other challenges. A combined Opposition will have a difficulty in naming a Prime Ministerial candidate. Our elections have become more and more Presidential. On one side, it is clear that Modi is the candidate. On the other side, if they are not able to put up a candidate, will it work? May be in a new Presidential-style politics, that is a handicap. So these are challenges. If they are able to come together, it will be quite formidable.

There is a perception that you are more aligned to Modi and BJP. How do you respond to that?

First of all, several people in the last two years kept saying that I was quitting the BJD with an ulterior motive and that I would join some other party, maybe the BJP. They have been very frustrated because it is seven months since I quit the BJD. Instead of joining any party, I had been extensively touring Odisha, meeting public and politicians and consulting them. So they have been proven wrong. I will tell you what happened. I was involved with the BJD from day one. It started its life as an ally of BJP. We had a common minimum programme. So from 20 years ago, we were espousing some common ideas. I will give you one example. For 15 years, I have been writing that we should do away with red-light beacons. I have been championing it when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister and later when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister. It so happens that the decision got taken now under Modi. Now shall I say that it is not a good decision because Modi took that decision? Many people use that as a pretext to say I am pro-Modi. I am pro certain ideas. My stand on these issues is public. Modi has acted on some of those ideas. So I welcome that and that does not mean I am pro-Modi. I am pro those ideas.

Why did you leave BJD?

I left the BJD not because of any ulterior motives but because it changed. I was a very proud member of the BJD for many years and worked very hard to build up its national image in Delhi. But in the last five years, the party has veered away as Naveen Patnaik has delegated more power to some others. There is a new coterie. The party has become the same kind of violent and corrupt organisation that it had founded to fight. So that is why I left it with a heart-break. I took a decision to leave on principle.

So it was an emotional break-up?

No, the emotional part was only at the very end. When my father, who was a very close friend of late Biju Patnaik, passed away BJD behaved in such a petty manner that not a single BJD member came to pay respects. Here in Delhi, from former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu to L K Advani to Murli Manohar Joshi, there were messages from the Prime Minister and others. Everybody came but none from the BJD. Neither in Odisha nor in Delhi. That was the only thing that hurt me. People of Odisha condemned it widely. But rest of it was all logical. Today Odisha has seen a sharp rise in violence and corruption. Every time a horrible incident like Kathua or Unnao where there were gangrape or murder took place, the national media has correctly condemned it and gave national exposure. Do you know two-four such incidents are happening in Odisha every week? For the last three years, every week 3-4 Kathuas and Unnaos are happening in Odisha. If you look at the NCRB statistics, Odisha has seen the single largest surge in the entire nation of crime. Now, this has to be spoken against. Just because I was a member of that party does not mean that I will tolerate the party suddenly becoming like this. That is why I left.

Do you think the uninterrupted rule by Naveen Patnaik since 2000 has resulted in what you think the erosion of values of BJD?

That is part of the reason. He has been in power for 19 years now. All those who helped in the early days, most of them are today gone. Not just me but people who are associated with Biju Patnaik are all sidelined. Today, there is a new coterie that is running the party. They were not involved with the party in the first 15 years. They are not accountable to people. Naveen has delegated most of the authority of both the government and the party to these people. You have a horrible situation today that you have a serving IAS officer who is running the party, who is collecting political funds and distributing tickets. This is totally unconstitutional. We have seen very powerful Prime Minister's Offices, very powerful Chief Minister's Offices in other states. But you have never seen sitting IAS officers doing this. This is the 'Lakshman Rekha' that has been crossed in Odisha. I think that is the reason why crime and corruption have gone out of control.

Do you mean to say Naveen Patnaik has changed?

I think Naveen is less connected, less hands-on. If there was any smell of corruption against any minister earlier, he would be dropped within 24 hours. Today that is not happening. In the last five years, not a single person has been dropped for corruption. Corruption has increased dramatically but none faced action. In the previous 14 years, every three-and-half-months, one minister was dropped on average on corruption charges. Secondly, just now one minister was dropped after he supported gang-rapists and it took 14 days of loud protests for him to be dropped. In the past, if any minister was accused of supporting a gang-rapist, he would be dropped within 24 hours. This is where BJD has changed.

What are your future plans? Will you contest the Lok Sabha polls?

I think there are different ways to contribute to the nation. I have been in politics for two decades. I have spent my prime years in politics. Many people want me to contest. Perhaps, I think I should contest. But people ask me which party I will join, whether I will start my own party. I am still considering all options. I will take a final decision very shortly in the coming weeks. My decision will be based on whoever is willing to take steps to reform Odisha. Both the national parties -- Congress and BJP -- are today at least talking about it. They are talking about crime and corruption in Odisha. But they have not taken any action. The Supreme Court has ordered a probe into the chit fund scam. Lakhs of families have lost their savings and nobody has been properly prosecuted. CBI has not been very active. This will not do. So I will consider aligning with anybody who is willing to act against corruption and crime in Odisha. One of the options may be not to join anybody but to start a new organisation.

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