Goa

Political flip-flops, Goan style

Print edition : March 26, 2021

Congress MLAs who joined the BJP with the party’s working president J.P. Nadda (third from right) and Chief Minister Pramod Sawant (to his right), in New Delhi on July 11, 2019. Photo: Kamal Kishore/PTI

In stark contrast to its laid-back culture, Goa has been a hotbed of political opportunism which the BJP has used to the hilt.

Winning at any cost has clearly been the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) mantra. Its antics in Goa during the 2017 Assembly election and later is the supreme example of its blatant disregard of all democratic processes in order to remain in power. It has engineered defections and used the allies to tilt the balance. And, except for a few veteran Congress leaders, the State’s politicians have proved time and again to be opportunists with no concern for ideology, loyalty or the people in their constituencies.

Goa is perhaps the only State that has had 13 Chief Ministers in 12 years, mainly during the 1990s. For a State that gained independence from colonial rule as late as 1961 and attained statehood in 1987, it has certainly witnessed a fair amount of political instability. Political commentators in Goa say it is sheer opportunism that has led to an environment of intrigue, back-stabbing and petty politics. Capitalising on this weakness in the electoral process, the BJP has shrewdly wooed several aspiring politicians to join the party in Goa. Between poaching, clever politics and the Congress’ downward spiral, the saffron brigade has successfully been at the helm since the early 2000s.

The tiny coastal State has 40 Assembly and two Lok Sabha seats. In the past it has usually been a close fight between the Congress and the BJP which then depended on regional parties to form a government. Marginal seats play a crucial role in the formation of the government and parties use aggressive tactics to garner a majority, even at the expense of the people’s mandate.

Quick on the draw

The 2017 Assembly election exposed the BJP’s devious ways to come to power at any cost. The incumbent Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar was not popular within the party or with Goans in general. When it became apparent that Parsekar may not be able to win the election for the BJP, the party’s central leadership devised two strategies: one, Manohar Parrikar, the then Defence Minister, would be sent back from Delhi to become Chief Minister if the party won. As Chief Minister earlier, Parrikar enjoyed the reputation of being a doer and a clean statesman. The other was to issue an open invitation to any MLA from other parties to join the BJP.

Five Congress leaders and one from the Goa Vikas Party defected to the BJP before the election. In the 2017 elections, the Congress won 17 seats, the BJP 13, and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and Goa Forward three seats each. Independents won three seats and the Nationalist Congress Party bagged one seat. Even as the Congress fumbled to get its act together, the BJP quickly forged an alliance with Goa Forward, which had felt slighted by the Congress before the election. Goa Forward demanded deputy chief ministership and two key Cabinet berths. The MGP, an old ally of the BJP, was willing to work with it again. The BJP managed to get the independents too on board and formed the government.

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“To be fair to the saffron party, it cannot be blamed for the Congress’ glaring incompetent leadership,” a senior Congress leader told Frontline at that time. “Due to high command issues we could not take a quick decision regarding alliances. But whether it was before or after the election, the entire election was a show of the BJPs deceit,” he said.

The BJP’s prize catch was Vishwajit Rane, son of Goa’s longest-serving Congress Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane, who resigned as MLA after winning the election on the Congress ticket. He was inducted into the Parrikar Cabinet shortly after. In the byelection that was necessitated by his resignation, he was re-elected from Valpoi on the BJP ticket.

A year into the BJP’s reign, two more Congress MLAs joined the party, taking its tally to 16. A few months later, two MGP MLAs joined the party and following the 2019 general election, 10 Congress MLAs joined the BJP, giving it an absolute majority in the Assembly. The Congress in opposition is currently left with five MLAs, four of whom are former Chief Ministers.

With the allies now being dispensable, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant severed ties with those who brought his party to power. He tossed out both Deputy Chief Ministers, Goa Forward leader Vijay Sardesai and the MGP’s Sudhin Dhavlikar. Sawant rewarded Chandrakant Kavlekar, who was Leader of the Opposition, with the deputy chief ministership. Sawant justified the move saying the State needed political stability which was hindered by the alliance and their demands. “Without them, I can now concentrate on State work,” he said.

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Furious at being ousted, Vijay Sardesai told Frontline that the alliance was formed as Goa Forward trusted the late Manohar Parrikar. “Had Parrikar been alive, he would have never done this. We helped them come to power. Is this what you do to an ally?” he asked. In fact, when the Shiv Sena won a substantial number of seats in the Maharashtra Assembly election in 2019, Uddhav Thackeray was on record saying that one of the reasons it would not ally with the BJP was because of what the party did to its allies in Goa.

Sawant’s penchant to hold on to power is seen in the manner in which he is planning to induct Atanasio Monserrate, otherwise known as Babush, into his Cabinet when the Assembly election is a year away. Monserrate is believed to have instigated the mass Congress defections. A party hopper, Monserrate has been with the Congress, the United Goan Democratic Party and Goa Forward before joining the BJP. His wife, Jennifer Monserrate, was among the 10 MLAs who defected to the BJP. Commentators on Goa politics say Monserrate tried to pull off a similar stunt when Parrikar was Chief Minister but the latter did not entertain him.

Petition in court

In a recent development, the Supreme Court, on February 26, began to hear a petition filed by Congress leader Girish Chodankar that the 10 MLAs who had defected saying that the “Congress ceased to exit in Goa and hence they would ‘merge’ with the BJP” should be disqualified under Article 191 (2) of the Tenth Schedule of the Constitution. He challenged the Assembly Speaker allowing this “merger” as the Congress party was a national party and was very much alive. Lawyers for the legislators argued that the Speaker had the power and discretion to permit this move and the court must not interfere.

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Goa witnessed its most stable periods during the time of Pratapsingh Rane (Congress) and Manohar Parrikar (BJP). Pratapsingh Rane is well into his eighties and is unable to restore the weak party to power. Parrikar’s ethics were respected across parties and it was perhaps only during his reign that the BJP enjoyed a certain respectability. Both leaders were known for their progressive thinking and ability to keep the State in order. Parrikar was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and died while in power. On his passing the BJP saw a good amount of infighting as former Chief Minister Parsekar felt he should be brought back to power although he had lost the election. The other contenders were Vijay Tendulkar and Pramod Sawant. Eventually, Sawant got the post, but not without making a few enemies in the party.

“One of the reasons he is so nervous is that he has competition within the party and without Manohar Parrikar, the BJP is seen quite poorly in Goa,” said Edwin Fonseca, head of the All India Catholic Union in Goa. “Sawant’s insecurity makes him work on defections. He has to have the majority or he may end up without a government to lead.”

Because it is so chaotic in Goa during election time, activists and party workers have been demanding stricter rules from the Election Commission. An example of the unpredictability of Goa politics is this: in 2017, a few hours before the filing of nominations ended, the Congress pulled the rug from under Goa Forward’s feet, saying it would also field a candidate from where Vijay Sardesai was contesting. This was after agreeing to an informal pre-election alliance.

Goans are known for their susegad, which loosely means a laid-back culture, but politics in the State is anything but.

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