Conscience before politics
Former MP and man of letters, Baijayant Jay Panda, discusses why being an opinion-maker, and an important one that too, is great responsibility
Baijayant 'Jay' Panda has had a long history with the Parliament. Having been elected twice each to the Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha, the politician from Odisha, was holding office for nearly 18 years, when a sudden setback in 2018, forced him to resign. Earlier last year, Panda was suspended from Biju Janata Dal (BJD) over alleged "anti-party" activities. Soon after, the leader, who was elected from the Kendrapara constituency, quit as MP. But not one to let this incident get the better of him, Panda is looking at this "transition" as a new beginning. His latest book, Lutyens Maverick: Ground Realities, Hard Choices and Tomorrow's India (Rupa Publications) is an effort in that direction.
A compilation of some of his popular columns for leading dailies, Panda's scholarship on a range of issues — be it politics, caste, policy-making, law or socio-religious issues, like triple talaq and Sabrimala — are evident. "I have always been an avid reader and writer from my school days. When I first became a MP, I started participating on TV debates (much less noisy in those days!), as well as Track-II Dialogues and policy forums. Many in Delhi suggested I should write, but it was not my style to solicit writing opportunities. That diffidence was overcome when [editor] Shekhar Gupta asked me to write [for his newspaper] and, happy with the outcome, kept asking me to write. This led many editors to ask me to write in national and international publications," Panda shared, over an email interview.
Unlike many opinion makers, who are backed by an ammo of researchers guiding their arguments, Panda does the groundwork for his columns, himself, "putting a lot of effort into writing, researching the topic, understanding arguments for and against an issue, and comparing it with similar developments in other countries". "And, while writing, I continually cross check facts, and do web searches on related issues. I envy writers who can shoot off essays breezily, but I go through a process that is painstakingly slow," he says.
Unarguably, the biggest blow for Panda came last year, when he was ousted from the party, he had nurtured as his own. Talking about his controversial exit now, he says, "Over the last previous four years, I had seen the party with which I had been associated from its beginning in the late 90s, veer away from its original, laudable principles, into exactly the kind of venal, violent organisation against whom we had started our movement. When I did not succeed in speaking out internally, my conscience compelled me to speak out in public, But I did so without rancour or malice, just pointing out where we had deviated from earlier actions, and how we should go back. That led to me being sidelined by the new coterie, which has taken control of that party, as well as being physically assaulted."
That he no longer enjoys the backing of a party, has proved to be a major deterrent for him, especially when tackling issues like corruption in Odisha. "That is a generic shortcoming of the Indian political system, where the party whip has come to be all powerful, with no room for an individual MP to exercise his or her conscience, without risk of being disqualified. I have been outspoken on the need to reform this, and several other aspects of our Parliament's rules." His next political move, however, will be a well thought out one, he says. "I have been considering what I ought to do, and have been moving all across Odisha, meeting with people and asking their advice. My decision will be based on who I feel are willing to not just mouth platitudes on the challenges Odisha faces, but is willing to actually join me in the fight to set things right. Since elections are nearing, I should take a decision soon."
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