Odisha’s agriculture minister Pradip Maharathy on Thursday resigned on “moral grounds” as he was under attack for allegedly shielding the accused in the Pipili rape case, to safeguard the image of the ruling BJD and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik image ahead of panchayat polls.

“Mr Maharathy has submitted his letter of resignation. He has resigned on moral ground. I have forwarded it to the Governor for acceptance,” Mr. Patnaik told reporters here.

On the opposition demand for a CBI probe into the Dalit girl rape case, the chief minister said since his government had already ordered a judicial inquiry into the matter, there was no need to go for a CBI investigation.

Saying the agriculture department would remain with him, Mr. Patnaik noted that his government was taking steps for proper treatment of the girl, battling for survival at the ICU of SCB Medical College Hospital in Cuttack.

“I have tendered my resignation on moral ground, in view of next month’s panchayat elections. The move is to safeguard BJD’s image,” Mr. Maharathy told reporters after handing over the resignation to Mr. Patnaik at the latter’s residence here.

Mr. Maharathy, a five time MLA from Pipili Assembly in Puri district and a first time minister, however, denied any pressure from any quarter and said he sought to protect the BJD’s image.

“I am not a coward, I am a stalwart. I am ready to face any inquiry,” he said.

Criticising opposition parties, mainly Congress, Mr. Maharathy said he had full faith in the judiciary and truth would come out despite a campaign to tarnish his and BJD’s image.

Meanwhile, the police nabbed Abua alias Sukant Pradhan of village Paparanga on Thursday, in connection with the November 28, 2011 rape incident. All the four accused have now been arrested.

The resignation by Mr. Maharathy came a day after the chief minister took stock of the situation arising out of the alleged rape.

Earlier, Mr. Patnaik had assured “stringent and extremely strong action” against the guilty.

Not satisfied with the agriculture minister’s resignation, opposition political parties, including the Congress and the BJP, alleged it was an eye-wash and a drama and demanded that the chief minister step down on moral ground.

“If Maharathy could resign on moral ground why not the chief minister who holds the home portfolio?” asked senior BJP leader and former minister Bijay Mohapatra.

Odisha Pradesh Congress Committee president Niranjan Patnaik said: “Maharathy’s resignation is not enough. It is a drama. We want the chief minister to resign. Our battle will continue.”

Making the same demand, state BJP president Jual Oram said Mr. Patnaik must resign on moral ground and agitation would continue to ensure justice to the rape victim.

Even as Mr. Maharathy quit the council of ministers, the opposition political parties and civil society outfits, which had undertaken state-wide agitations in the wake of the Dalit gangrape case, continued its demand for a CBI probe into the matter as people had no faith in the investigation by the state police.

Though the incident had allegedly taken place way back on November 28, 2011, a case was registered by the police on January 9, 2012 following the intervention of the state human rights commission.

Besides ordering a judicial inquiry into the incident, the state government had also handed over investigation to CID-crime branch and suspended the concerned police inspector from Pipili.