When senior journalist Prabhu Chawla asked Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik during an event in Bhubaneswar, if the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe into the chit fund scam had rattled him, Patnaik was quick to reply: “It has not rattled me at all. The government, after all, is not involved with this. And, we too, have done our best to try to clean up this mess.”
Last week, while in Delhi on an official trip, confronted by journalists on the arrest of a party MP and a former MLA for links with a chit fund firm, Patnaik quipped: “It was their personal business. The law will take its own course,” and then went on to announce their suspension from the party.
A few days before that, the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) supremo, known for his zero tolerance of party men facing corruption allegations, had also promptly suspended Banki MLA Pravat Tripathy, after he was arrested by CBI, though it had caused consternation among some leaders like BJD parliamentary party chief in the Lok Sabha Bhatruhari Mahatab, who criticised the action. Mahatab later withdrew his statement.
Patnaik, of course, has no reason to feel rattled yet. Unlike his West Bengal counterpart, the shadow of a chit fund scam does not threaten to engulf him personally. Nor is the arrest of a sitting MP and a sitting MLA of the party – which swept the last general elections, winning 117 of the 147 Assembly seats and 20 of the 21 Lok Sabha seats – likely to make a big dent politically, as of now.
But the probe is still on and if more party leaders are hauled up by CBI in the course of the investigation, then things might go really awry for the ruling party. Many names of senior leaders and ministers of the BJD are being discussed privately, who could have links with chit fund firms. But in the course of the CBI investigation, if there are more arrests or senior ministers are hauled off for grilling, it will be a big blow for the party.
Already, the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – one of its former MLA has also been arrested by CBI – and the Congress – a couple of its low ranking leaders have been quizzed by the probe agency as well – are clamouring that the government is trying to shield senior BJD leaders and ministers involved in the scam. The accusation has gained some credence with the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court for the chit fund case S Divan saying the Odisha government is not extending due co-operation to the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate in the probe.
Noting that the “investigation is being stalled at the instance of influential political leaders,” Divan wanted the SC to inquire directly as to why CBI appeared unwilling or unable to vigorously pursue the probe.
The BJD has trashed these allegations. “The CBI is being provided all possible support by the government,” said Pratap Keshari Deb, spokesperson for the BJD.
BJD, unlike the Trinamool Congress in West Bengal, has neither gone all out to blast CBI, nor tried to rake up political muck by accusing the BJP-led central government for using the probe agency to defame the regional outfit in the state.
On the contrary, when senior party leader Tripathy was arrested, the BJD spokesperson said he reposed confidence in the probe by CBI and said there might have been prima facie evidence against Tripathy for which he has been booked.
There is only feeble criticism of the probe agency’s method of investigation. Analysts say the BJD’s reluctance to go full blast against CBI or the Centre to control the political damage emanating from the arrest of its leaders has its own reasons. First, the main plank of the BJD is the Patnaik’s clean image. Any attempt to thwart the probe will work against this plank. The cases were handed over to the CBI after the state police was seen as complicit in shielding those very people whom the CBI has arrested, exposing the state government.
Second, there are cases pending in the SC, praying for the court’s order to initiate a CBI probe into the multi-million crore mining scam, which is much bigger in size and political patronage than the chit fund scam. So the ruling party does not want to upset the probe agency or the central government by doing anything that could be detrimental in the future.
One thing is clear: politics in Odisha is going to be far from tranquil in the weeks to come.