Baijayant Panda could have led a a very different life. Born into a business family with enough wealth for him to study in Michigan, ‘Jay’ Panda didn’t have to roll his sleeves up and get his hands dirty in the slow, frustrating, often corrupt machinations of Indian politics. He and his wife, a former model and stewardess turned successful entrepreneur, could have been satisfied as just another glamorous power couple insulating themselves with their money from the grim realities of the lives of tens of millions of their compatriots.
Little wonder, then, that Panda describes himself as the ‘accidental politician’. Irritated by the inefficiencies of the country he’d returned to from the USA in the early ’90s, a country just beginning to liberalise and still beset by many of the problems of the ‘licence raj’, Panda would complain long and loud until his friends told him to “either do something about it or shut up.” He decided to do something.
His father being closely associated with the iconic Biju Patnaik, Panda joined the party founded by Patnaik’s son Naveen who took over his father’s seat in the Lok Sabha. In 1997, Naveen Patnaik split from the Janata Dal in 1997 over the latter’s refusal to support the BJP. Since then, the Biju Janata Dal has been a mainstay in Odisha politics and an important member of the NDA coalition, breaking that alliance in 2009 and deciding to go it alone.
Panda, twice elected to the Rajya Sabha, quickly became the most nationally recognised face of the BJD. In 2009 he was elected to the Lok Sabha and has become an impressive backbencher for the focus and organisation he brings to the issues he champions and his accessibility to his constituents. Panda is, of course, a slick contemporary politician, his Facebook page full of pictures of his work in his Kendrapada constituency and links to his smooth performances in cable news debates.
He is clearly a doer, a technocrat eager to set an example of good governance and efficiency. Panda has described Rajiv Gandhi as the “Kennedy of India”, but seems keen to show that there is substance behind his own ‘best and brightest’ gloss. Panda, as he wrote in an op-ed for the BBC, wants to resurrect the image of the politician in the eyes of the disenchanted and weary middle class as someone with a desire to accomplish goals not just hold on to the perks of power.