A fractured verdict in Goa

Print edition : June 08, 2002

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party fails to win a majority but manages to put together a coalition government.

GOA, which was liberated from Portuguese colonial rule about 40 years ago and which attained statehood in 1987, has a history of political instability, characterised mainly by defections. Naturally the results of the May 30 elections to the 40-member State Assembly rekindled fears that the malaise would continue, because no single party won a majority. The election turned out to be a race between the two major national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress(I). Although the swearing-in of Manohar Parikkar of the BJP as Chief Minister, leading a three-party coalition, on June 3 allayed such fears for now, there are suspicions about the means he might have used to muster a majority.

Manohar Parrikar being sworn in as Chief Minister by Governor Mohammad Fazal at Raj Bhavan in Panaji on June 3.-RAVI SHARMA

Parrikar managed to win the support of five non-Congress(I) legislators - two each from the Maharashtra Gomantak Party (MGP) and the United Goan Democratic Party (UGDP) and an independent. All five have been accommodated in the Cabinet. The MGP and the UGDP, which fought the elections together, had pledged in their common election manifesto that they would not align with the BJP.

Speaking to mediapersons after being sworn in, Parrikar denied that the ministerial berths given to non-BJP legislators were the 'price' for their support. He told Frontline that the BJP now shared power with the MGP and the UGDP. "The only way to accommodate them was to give them Cabinet berths," he said. Parrikar also disclosed that the BJP had requested Mathany Saldana, the only other legislator of the UGDP, to join the government. Saldana, a former schoolteacher, has apparently agreed to extend issue-based support. The Chief Minister has to prove his majority during the vote on account in the Assembly.

The BJP may have moved in swiftly with an intention to thwart the Congress (I)'s efforts to form the government, but Parikkar will now have to run the government with the support of a Cabinet colleague against whom he has filed a police complaint. Politically too, it was a climbdown for Parikkar because he dissolved the Assembly in February seeking a clear mandate.

The elections produced a fractured verdict. Although the Congress (I) won 38.2 per cent of the vote compared to the BJP's 35.38 per cent, it fell behind in terms of seats. The BJP emerged as the single largest party, with 17 seats, whereas the Congress(I) won 16. They had won ten and 21 seats respectively in the previous elections in 1999. The Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), which had projected itself as the third force in Goa, won just one seat and 5.8 per cent of the vote. The alliance of the MGP and the UGDP, the once-powerful regional parties which traditionally fought for the Hindu and Roman Catholic Christian votes respectively, won five seats (MGP 2 and UGDC three). The Shiv Sena and the Goa Suraj Party drew a blank.

Both the Congress(I) and the BJP claimed that they had the support of the three UGDP legislators. Each hoped that the MGP-UGDP alliance would either break or enter into a coalition with it.

An indication of the BJP's strategy in the post-election period came during the election campaign, when Parrikar reacted angrily to a press report that quoted him as saying that he preferred a Cabinet that had only eight members, that is 20 per cent of the Assembly's strength. Forming a Cabinet of that size would have been difficult as he would have to accommodate 'friendly' legislators.

PARRIKAR, who was elected the leader of the BJP Legislature Party, met the Governor on June 1 to stake claim to form the government on the grounds that his party was the single largest group in the Assembly. According to BJP spokesman Subhash Salkar, it would be "an insult to the electorate" if the single largest party in the Assembly sat in the Opposition. Party leaders had no answer to the query as to how they could justify a coalition government when Parrikar had dissolved the Assembly two years before it could complete its term saying that he wanted a clear mandate from the people.

The Congress(I), in a memorandum submitted to the Governor, demanded that he should consult the leaders of all political parties before taking a decision on the next government. Nirmala Sawant, outgoing president of the Goa Pradesh Congress(I) Committee, told Frontline that the Governor should follow the precedent set recently by the Uttar Pradesh Governor who recommended President's Rule, ignoring the claims of the Samajwadi Party, the single largest party in the Assembly.

A coming together of the non-communal parties - the NCP and the MGP-UGDP alliance - and the independent would have helped the Congress(I) form the government. But political observers had doubted whether most of the legislators, who had reportedly spent large amounts of money, would be influenced by ideological considerations.

The importance accorded to the Goa elections, the first major electoral exercise after the carnage in Gujarat, was evident from the fact that all top leaders of the Congress(I) and the BJP campaigned in the State. In fact, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's controversial speech at the BJP's National Executive in Panaji on April 12 marked the launch of its campaign. Leaders such as L.K. Advani, Pramod Mahajan, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh campaigned for the BJP.

The Congress(I)'s campaign was spearheaded by its president Sonia Gandhi. Among the other major campaigners were party general secretary Ambika Soni, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and former Union Ministers Jagdish Tytler, Kamal Nath and Manmohan Singh. For the NCP, all its top leaders, including Sharad Pawar and P.A. Sangma, campaigned.

Congress(I) leaders stressed that the elections were crucial in the context of the political struggle to protect India's secular image. Congress(I) candidates sought to use the controversy over the cassette of Hey Ram, a video film on the Gujarat carnage. The BJP, with the help of the police and the Chief Electoral Officer, managed to stop its screening in many instances. The police also sought to ban the special issues of Communalism Combat, a journal published from Mumbai.

All parties, however, contended that the happenings in Gujarat did not influence the voting pattern in a big way.

Some observers argued that there was an undercurrent of disapproval of the Gujarat carnage, pointing out that the ruling BJP did not win a majority. In the run-up to the elections, the facts that were highlighted among Muslims were the indictment of the Narendra Modi government by the National Human Rights Commission for its role in the violence, the vandalising of a mosque at Succor and the subsequent closure of the police case against the main culprit, and the BJP government's patronage of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad-sponsored bandh that paralysed life in Panaji.

But the electorate did not wholeheartedly favour the Congress(I). The biggest criticism against the Congress(I) was its going back on the commitment that it would not nominate defectors and "scamsters". As it turned out, "winnability" was the criterion for the choice of candidates. Another factor that affected the Congress(I)'s prospects was its delay in the choice of candidates. Dissidence was a major problem and many Congress(I) rebels won nomination as NCP candidates. The presence of the NCP cut into the votes of the Congress. The attempt to form a Congress(I)-NCP coalition failed, following differences over the division of seats. Such an alliance, it is said, would have prevented the BJP's victory in at least four seats - Tivim, Solim, Vasco da Gama and Mandrem. The BJP won these seats by narrow margins.

The Congress(I)'s performance in southern Goa, which has a large Roman Catholic population, was less than impressive. The party, which bagged 13 seats in 1999, managed to win only nine this time. Similar was its performance in the 'old conquest' taluks (Goa is divided into three 'old conquest' taluks and 11 'new conquest' taluks). The BJP made inroads into its base in the 'old conquest' taluks of Salcete, Bardez and Tiswadi. In Salcete, the Congress(I) failed to retain three of the seven seats it had won in 1999.

THE BJP is the major beneficiary in the elections. In the early 1990s, it outplayed the MGP in the race for Hindu votes. The party has established a strong presence in the State, thanks to a subtle but growing communal divide between Hindus, who form around 65 per cent of the population, and Roman Catholics, who constitute about 28 per cent. Muslims make up around 5 per cent of the population. The BJP's vote share has gone up from 0.47 per cent in 1989 to 35.4 per cent this time. In the Lok Sabha elections of 1999, it won both the seats from Goa. That was the first time that the party won a parliamentary election in Goa. Sripad Naik of the BJP won Goa North (Panaji) by a margin of over 36,721 votes, establishing leads in 17 of the 19 Assembly segments. In Goa South (Marmugao) Ramakanth Angle won by a margin of 14,457 votes, establishing leads in 14 of the 21 Assembly segments. The Congress(I) was its main rival in both seats.

However, it was not a smooth ride for the BJP this time. Sripad Naik, who resigned as Union Minister of State for Shipping to contest the Assembly elections, lost to Ravi Naik in the Ponda constituency. Sheikh Hasan, the BJP's only Muslim candidate, and Ulhas Asnodkar, Deputy Speaker of the last Assembly, were the other major losers among the BJP candidates.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor