Shifting sands

Published : Feb 24, 2012 00:00 IST

It is the Congress versus the BJP in Goa, with the once-strong regional parties playing either spoilers or kingmakers.

in Panaji

BY February 16, the last date for withdrawal of nominations, contenders for the Assembly elections scheduled for March 3 in Goa will have less than two weeks for active campaigning. Though there promises to be multi-corner contests and several candidates in each of the 40 constituencies, the battle for Goa is essentially between the ruling Congress and the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is making a bid to regain Panaji since its 2000-2005 tenure.

For every election after its electoral debut in the State in 1994, the BJP has had a firm chief ministerial candidate. But this time leadership tussles have erupted in the party, with Other Backward Classes (OBC) leader Shripad Naik making an aggressive pitch to re-enter State politics after three terms as Member of Parliament. Naik, the MP from North Goa, has been projected as a Bhandari Samaj leader within the party. The party's central committee has denied him permission to contest the Assembly elections. He went into a sulk and is staying away from the Jan Sampark Abhiyan (mass contact programme) launched by the party.

Analysts see the move by the party as one intended to prevent another power centre within the BJP and a possible contest for the top job, thereby consolidating the position of former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who hails from the small and closely networked Gaud Saraswat Brahmin caste, which holds dominant positions in the State's business, professional, media and culture circuits. The OBC-Brahmin contest within the BJP has already become grist to its detractors, but more fundamentally it has thrown open the question of the Gaud Saraswat community's upswing, with at least one newspaper editorial pointing out that it held the posts of both the Chief Minister and the Leader of Opposition in the past five years.

The Congress, meanwhile, is approaching the elections with a surfeit of competing generals, each shoring up his position for the legislature party leadership by lobbying for the ticket to be given to loyalists and family members. Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, who moved from the BJP to the Congress just ahead of the 2007 elections, is keen on getting the ticket awarded to a couple of BJP legislators who ditched their party ahead of the elections this time. Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, the ambitious son of Speaker and long-serving Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane, has been buttressing his position in several neighbouring constituencies in and around the interior Sattari taluk his family dominates by giving local youth from his pocket borough government jobs in the health sector.

Goa's personality- and family-based politics, a trend the Congress was unable to nip in the bud in 2007, has grown into a gargantuan problem for its managers in New Delhi. In 2007, the Congress denied Vishwajit Rane the ticket, but he contested as an independent. Its efforts to contain South Goa leader Churchill Alemao cost the Congress several seats when his regional outfit, the Save Goa Front, ate into its vote base. The Congress was finally forced to make peace with Churchill because of his damage potential.

(Following several attempts by the BJP in alliance with the Save Goa Front, the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP) and independents to unseat Kamat, the Congress offered ministerships to Save Goa Front supremo Churchill Alemao, in return for his party's merger with the Congress. The lone UGDP legislator, Atanasio Monserrate, joined the Congress to become a Minister, as did one independent, Vishwajit Rane, who became Health Minister.) This time round, the bid to contain family and dynastic politics has delayed the finalisation of candidates for several crucial seats, though the party had announced early that it would favour sitting MLAs.

As always, candidate selection is the Congress' biggest nightmare. The Alemao brothers Churchill and Joaquim, both Ministers in the government are angling for seats for their children, Valanka Alemao (Churchill's daughter) and Yuri Alemao (Joaquim's son). Home Minister Ravi Naik is also seeking the ticket for his son, with suggestions that the Naik and Alemao sons will be accommodated by the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) in two of the six or seven seats it is likely to get after pre-poll alliance talks with the Congress.

The Congress has a trickier problem with Education Minister Atanasio Monserrate, whose claim for a nomination for his wife reflects a tussle with a sitting Congress legislator for the control of prime real-estate pockets of suburban Panaji. Given Monserrate's winnability, the Congress cannot afford to ignore him, but it has adopted a strategy to control his growing influence. The party has not forgotten its previous experience with Monserrate: in 2007, he procured the party nomination but at the eleventh hour ditched the party to contest for the UGDP, a regional outfit, leaving the Congress without a contestant in the Taleigaosegment.

Investigations conducted by the Income Tax Department and released to sections of the press on January 30, pointing to Monserrate having allegedly collected Rs.24 crore as fees for land conversions during his 2006 tenure as Town and Country Planning Minister, have hit the headlines in Goa. On January 31, just days ahead of the Congress announcing its list of candidates, IT sleuths raided several builders, prompting Monserrate to say that raking up a five-year-old matter was nothing but politics.

Regional parties

Goa's once-strong regional parties have been reduced to what analysts dub as spoilers or as kingmakers as the case may be. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), which backed the Congress for the past five years, has this time kept its doors open for both the Congress and the BJP. Controlled by the sibling duo of Ramkrishna and Pandurang Dhavlikar, the MGP has to contest a certain number of seats to retain its registration. But its voter base overlaps with that of the BJP, a fact that is not lost on the Congress in its strategy to contain the BJP in its North Goa strongholds.

The BJP, likewise, lends its covert support to regional outfits the UGDP and the Goa Vikas Party (headed by the flamboyant and controversial former NCP Minister Micky Pacheco) that eat into the Congress' Catholic vote base in Salcete taluk in South Goa.

The Congress faces a challenge in some seats from the activist priest Fr Bismarque Dias, who has announced his plans to contest under the Zagrut Goemkarancho Ekvott (Vigilant Goan Front), a grouping of anti-Regional Plan activists that sees itself as providing an honest alternative. Attempts by real-estate lobbies to subvert the citizens-designed Regional Plan 2020 have become a rallying point for middle class angst in Goa, all of it directed against the ruling Congress. While the economic boom in tourism, real estate and iron ore mining brings rich financial dividends, and a consumerist boom of gadgets and automobiles, Goa's middle class is acutely conscious of the loss of its green tranquillity and life-work balance to urban chaos.

Considering this fact, the Congress manifesto committee has promised a review of the Regional Plan and legislative measures to prevent the sale of farmland to non-ethnics and non-agriculturists. All major and regional parties have promised to lobby for some form of special status to Goa as concerns over an influx of immigrants and the sale of large swathes of land to people from outside the State have come to the fore in public discussions here.

The BJP, with the slogan of a vote for change and Goa deserves better, along with the tacit backing of anti-corruption campaigners and myriad non-governmental organisations it has fostered, is attempting to tap into this angst. Team Anna is expected to canvass in the State a few days before March 3.

However, the BJP is attempting to ride the cry for sustainable development that comes from sections of the population, including the influential Catholic Church, along with a simultaneous and dichotomous advocacy of a fast-paced Gujarat-type development model for Goa. Parrikar has been making attempts to woo the State's 30 per cent minority Catholic community, apologising for cancelling a Good Friday holiday during the party's five-year term in power in 2000 and promising to curb his faults of arrogance.

Another arm of its strategy is to play on the traditional rivalry between Christian Brahmins and Christian Chardos (Kshatriyas), backing the latter off and on as the two castes tussle within the Congress. The BJP has taken several Christian politicians into its fold this time, including its former Tourism Minister and a traditional fishermen's leader, Mathany Saldanha.

Government formation patterns in Goa have generally followed the power situation in New Delhi, a fact the Congress is well aware of. The choices of the electorate are made not on bijli-sadak-pani barometers but on more emotive policy issues of where the small State is heading, with identity politics playing an important role. With the constituencies in this State of 14 lakh people being small, victory margins can be as close as 200 votes, making the arithmetic of caste and community calculations and the effect of spoiler and match-fixing candidates all the more crucial. Factors of anti-incumbency, corruption, infrastructure and governance have been seen to have less effect on voter choices than access to power, access to aspirational avenues, personality-based loyalties and protection against business and community rivals in the intensely competitive small spaces operational here.

Mining, a tricky terrain

For this reason, despite the huge noises the BJP made in an earlier campaign on illegal mining in the State, the party has refrained from harping too much on the issue; hundreds of small businesses could be affected by a blanket shutdown of this major sector. In interior Goa, mining has split the population those who earn revenues from it are willing to condone all its ill effects while others are up in arms against it, making it a tricky terrain for political parties to negotiate. A shrewd strategist, Parrikar, with an authoritarian streak, has an edge in governance compared with the Congress leaders with their please-all, inclusive and negotiation policies.

The BJP has also put on the back burner the emotive and divisive issue of government grants to English-medium primary schools. Bowing to parental sentiment, the Congress reversed an earlier policy of grants only to Konkani and Marathi-medium primary schools, prompting an agitation from regional language chauvinists who had the backing of the BJP and the MGP. With Christian-run primary schools largely seeking to revert to English schools, the BJP may well go slow on this campaign in its bid to woo the Catholics.

Muslim demand

Reflecting the growing number of migrant Muslims who have climbed from 3 per cent to 8 per cent of the population, the community has sought representation of one seat from the Congress. Chief Minister Kamat, who has a sizeable population of Muslims in his Margao town constituency, enjoys considerable goodwill from the community.

The Congress's consideration for a representative seat could fall on the neighbouring Fatorda segment, currently represented by a BJP legislator. Either way, it is a demand the Congress has promised to consider.

Making their debut in the State's politics this election are several parties, including Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress, which has appointed former Chief Minister Wilfred de Souza as its State unit president. The octogenarian de Souza, who found himself out of the NCP, has a knack for reinventing himself. This time he is aiming to contest from the Aldona seat, where he will most probably come up against the Congress' Dayanand Narvekar.

Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Sharad Yadav's Janata Dal (U) have also announced their plans to debut in the electoral fray though nobody expects them to be anything but minor players in the State. The Shiv Sena has announced its plans to contest some 33 seats, while the Communist Party of India and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) have a tie-up between them to contest a few seats.

While the political line-up is yet to crystallise for the March 3 elections, what is clear as of now is that considering the fundamental nature of the issues that face the Goan electorate, the results of the 2012 elections will have a far-reaching impact.

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