After several rounds of defectionsin Goa , it appears that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are back to being the main players in the upcoming Assembly election in the State. If the popular mood and the final lists of contestants are anything to go by, it will be a closely contested race between the BJP and the Congress-Goa Forward Party (GFP) alliance. The loud bluster of the new entrants, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), had made it seem for a while as if the playing field was wide open. However, once nomination papers were filed, the dust seemed to settle and a clearer picture started to emerge.
Conversations with several local Goans, commentators and a few politicians in the State suggested a reasonably strong anti-incumbency sentiment, enough to put the BJP on shaky ground. A party source said the BJP keenly feels the absence of the late Manohar Parrikar for his umatched skill of steering an election. With the exit of former Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane, the Congress is also unsteady. Yet, if it manages to leverage the undercurrent against the ruling regime, the grand old party could have an edge over its saffron opponent.
Goa has a 40-seat Assembly. The historical pattern is that the bigger parties reach close to the halfway mark and are constrained to form the government with the support of regional parties. Political commentators predict a similar outcome in 2022. The new element this time is the possibility of the Trinamool, the AAP and independent candidates winning four or five seats. The Trinamool has tied up with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) led by Sudhin Dhavlikar, which usually wins three seats, enough to give it a decisive as kingmaker. In 2018, the MGP was tossed out by the BJP, which will not be forgotten by the party. A public spat between the Trinamool’s Mahua Moitra and the Congress’ P. Chidambaram over a possible partnership indicates there is no love lost there. Most commentators say the MGP’s role will be critical this time.
The Trinamool had arrived in Goa with a big bang. It managed to woo a few heavyweights such as former Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro and Alexio Reginaldo from the Congress. But in recent weeks, the party appears to be going through a rough patch. Reginaldo resigned; State unit general secretary Yatish Naik quit saying the Trinamool was a party “bereft of all principles”. Faleiro withdrew from the Fatorda seat as he felt he stood no chance against the GFP’s Vijai Sardesai. The manifesto that the party has released has definitely got a finger on Goa’s pulse, but whether that will bring it votes is uncertain.
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Dr Oscar Rebello, a political columnist and former AAP member, said: “It has come back to the old dogfight between the BJP and Congress, with the smaller parties helping out. The TMC is too new, and the AAP does not have the resources to compete with the two juggernauts. I think people are fed up with the BJP. It is a pan-Goan sentiment. They want an alternative, and by default that is the Congress—a collateral beneficiary.” He pointed out that Alexio Reginaldo did not get the party ticket though he came back to the Congress. He felt this sent out a message that defectors would be punished.
Rebello, who has participated in Goan politics, added: “This State is unlike any other. The voter is reasonably educated and will not be swayed or bought by pre-election promises. What matters is the MLAs’ access to them and the tangible work he/she has done. Caste, religion, party are secondary. Constituencies have between 15,000 and 20,000 people, so personal connection matters, and a candidate can lose by even 100 votes.”
Commentators say the Catholic Church and Hindu clerics nudging their parishes and followers in a certain direction are an unseen yet significant hand that is played closer to the election. Goa’s 30 per cent Catholic population is a crucial vote bank. Manohar Parrikar had deftly changed the politics of the State by persuading several Christian leaders to join the party. This shrewd move virtually broke the tough Catholic bastion. In fact, the BJP’s final line-up of candidates for the forthcoming election has nine Catholic contestants.
BJP vs Congress
A change of guard seems to be the refrain in Goa. Topping the list of grievances against the BJP is how the party dumped its allies in 2018 and then poached on sitting Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) from other parties and gave the defectors ministerial berths to gain a majority. A former BJP supporter said: “I don’t think they realised the impact of that manoeuvre. The party high command says it was done with the idea of creating stability. Yet, the manner in which it was executed exposed the BJP as a party that could stoop very low to remain in power.” He added: “The base cadre is angry with the defection drama. In one case, a former Congressman who defected to the BJP continues to patronise his Congress supporters in the hope of converting them. But he has alienated the BJP worker in the process. The constituents seem almost disgusted with the defections. I think they have underestimated the issue.”
(Defections do indeed seem to be an issue in this election. In a move to reassure the voter, the Congress initiated a “loyalty pledge” for all its candidates. Each aspirant was asked to take a vow not to defect at a place of his/her choice, such as temple, church, or dargah. The AAP conducted a similar exercise.)
Nonetheless, the BJP has worked hard at creating an image of strength. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, who is the party’s chief ministerial face, has categorically said pre-poll alliances will not be sought as he is confident the BJP will ride back to power with a clear majority. Although candidate selection has been calculated on the winnability factor, says the BJP source, a few disgruntled elements who did not get the party ticket could put a spoke in the party’s wheels. For instance, Savitri Kavlekar, Deputy Chief Minister Chandrakant Kavlekar’s wife, has thrown her hat in as an independent.
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Utpal Parrikar, Manohar Parrikar’s son, had asked for his father’s Panjim seat. He too has decided to go in as an independent after being denied the ticket. This is expected to split the BJP vote because Parrikar has a strong support base in Panjim. The artist Subodh Kerkar said: “Parrikar belongs to the dominant Saraswat community. Alienating them may not have been a wise call. Moreover, Utpal Parrikar accused the party of choosing someone with criminal antecedents. This may play on the mind of the voter and work against Babush Monserrate [the BJP’s candidate in Panjim] as he does have a past record.”
Manohar Parrikar had won the Panjim seat four times. After he died, Monserrate defected to the BJP from the Congress and won in Panjim. He had earlier been a winner from the neighbouring Talegaon constituency, which is now held by his wife Jennifer Monserrate. Kerkar says Panjim, will be an interesting battle: “Babush is a mastermind. He has worked at providing ration cards, electricity connections, things the voter will appreciate. Talegaon and Panjim have been strongholds of the Monserrates. On the flip side, Panjim is the State’s capital and houses a large chunk of Goa’s rich as well as middle-income, educated and elitist sections. They may not go with Monserrate, who has a poor reputation.”
Justin Fernandes, owner of a taxi business and Congress party worker in Mapusa, said: “What does the Congress have going for it? We do not even see one hoarding during the campaign. Yet, people are looking at the party with some hope.” He felt that losing MLAs to the BJP actually worked in the Congress’ favour. “The party is forced to find fresh faces, and people seem to want a party with new candidates. We do not want ineffectual, opportunistic politicians anymore,” he said.
Plenty of issues
Goa’s economy has been reeling under the impact of the COVID lockdowns.. Tourism and mining are the mainstay of the economy. In recent years, real estate has become a golden goose for local residents. The mines have been shut, yet they remain a contentious issue. The BJP has not been able to deliver on its promises to reopen them. As thousands of livelihoods were affected by the closures, the issue comes up every election. In this election, too, every party in the fray has promised to tackle the reopening issue.
The shutting of casinos has brought tourism to its knees. Francis Lobo, a shack owner in Calangute, said: “Just as we started recovering, the New Year parties brought a spike and the State had to re-impose restrictive measures. The State has not given us any waivers or subsidies. If people cancel at the last minute because of the pandemic, we have no fall-back option.” Recently, the government imposed a rule on taxi operators, asking them to instal meters in their vehicles. Fernandes said: “Each meter costs Rs.11,000. Where will I get that money? They said they would cover Rs.4,500 if we did it in 45 days. But the process to get the paper work done has taken more than two months. For instance, in a day, they will register 40 vehicles with meters. There are 35,000 cabs in Goa. Thousands of us are dependent on the taxi industry. These are issues which we are fighting for.”
The other contentious issue in the election has been the Goa Bhumi Adhikarini Act, 2021, popularly known as the Bhoomiputra issue. In order to protect Goans from the “outsider”, the law allows locals who have lived in the State for 30 years or more to get the title of the land they live on in their name. Goa has a multitude of complexities in land issues on account of having been a Portuguese colony until the 1960s. The new law, while providing security to Goans, was called an election gimmick by opposition parties. They accused the Pramod Savant government of creating the law to regularise illegal real estate.
Goa’s population, according to the last Census, was approximately 15 lakh. It ranks the highest in per capita income among States in the country, according to the Net State Domestic Product data. Its robust economy stems largely from agriculture and tourism. Mining provided a substantial number of jobs as long as it was permitted. Goa sends out many emigrants, and so a fair amount of foreign exchange comes in from the Gulf, Portugal, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom. Election issues are generally local issues such as electricity, roads, taxi metres or restaurant and bar licences.
Goans seem to find the TMC-MGP manifesto released on January 30 quite ambitious. The combine put together 10 election promises. These include termination of three linear projects that cut through south Goa’s Mollem National Park; creation of two lakh jobs with 80 per cent reservation for Goans; increasing the size of the State economy from Rs.0.71 lakh crore to Rs.1.8 crore. The manifesto says mining will be started on an environmentally sustainable basis within 250 days of forming the government.
In addition, the sensitive land rights issue has been addressed with the “Maaji Ghar, Maalki Hakk” programme, which ensures land rights and housing for all families since and before 1976. Under the “Griha Laxmi” scheme, Rs.5,000 per month will be directly transferred to one woman in every household. A collateral-free loan for Goan youth up to Rs.20 lakh is promised under the “Yuva Shakti” banner.
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With the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC), a political research and action group working for the Trinamool, it can be assumed that a fair amount of groundwork has gone into understanding what the Goan voter expects. The IPAC was instrumental in retaining the Trinamool in power in West Bengal in 2021.
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal released a 13-point agenda called the Goa Model a month ahead of the election. The AAP promises an unemployment allowance for every person without a job until they find work; Rs.1,000 a month for every woman above the age of 18; restarting of mining activities within six months of government formation; 300 units of free electricity; good roads; better education; and health centres. “Tall promises. Let’s see if it brings votes,” commented Fernandes.