Goa Assembly election: A vote for change?

The high voter turnout, the increase in the number of contestants, and a strong anti-incumbency mood might upset the BJP’s plans to retain power in Goa.

Published : Feb 22, 2022 06:00 IST

At a polling booth  in Goa on February 14, 2022.

At a polling booth in Goa on February 14, 2022.

Goa went to the polls on February 14, and people seemed relaxed even though the lines were long at several voting booths in this tiny coastal State. The weather is lovely in February and residents were enjoying a little peace after a manic holiday and political season. In the run-up to the Assembly election, the State witnessed a fair amount of drama, with new entrants, alliances, defections, family feuds and disgruntled contenders. Towards the end of campaigning, the only picture to emerge from the kaleidoscope of images was that the two national parties, the Congress and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), would dominate the results, with independents and smaller regional parties playing a supportive role.

The significant aspect of this election was the number of candidates contesting from each constituency. Senior citizens said that they had never seen so many choices. According to Election Commission of India (ECI) data, 301 candidates were in the fray this time, from one of the 12 parties or as independents, for the 40 Assembly constituencies. The election in 2017 saw 250 candidates from nine parties or as independents.

Analysts said that although Goa is a small State, the election trend here could have an impact on the elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab scheduled soon afterwards. A commentator based in Goa said: “Obviously, the BJP, in its effort to trample over federalism, wants as many States as possible in its bag.”

The analysts also said that since the anti-incumbency wave was strong, many more aspirants threw their hats in the ring, perhaps hoping to be part of a ruling coalition. Kalidas Gaunas, the BJP’s general secretary for Sanquelim constituency, said: “There is no dearth of people willing to stand for office in Goa. Every candidate thinks he can be a kingmaker and every candidate thinks he can become Chief Minister. Even in Valpoi, which is a clean sweep for [Minister] Vishwajit Rane, there are eight candidates.”

While visiting a handful of crucial constituencies, this correspondent found that the residents were holding their cards close to their chest. Few were willing to comment on who they would prefer in the top seat. The only common observation was: “We will vote for the person who has done or will do his job.”

Lack of clarity

If there was little clarity before the election, one is none the wiser after the voting. At a gathering in his constituency in Sanquelim on the day of the election, Chief Minister Pramod Sawant of the BJP told Frontline : “We are confident of winning 22 out of the 40 Assembly seats. We will achieve 22 in 2022, a slogan that I have been using for this election.”

Asked whether he was nervous about the party’s prospects in constituencies in Salcete or South Goa, which is largely Catholic-dominated and therefore not a strong area for the saffron party, he said: “Even if those eight seats do not come through, we will cross the halfway mark with victories in other areas.”

The Congress-Goa Forward Party alliance declared to a local television channel that they were confident of winning 26 seats. Observers said that the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) would win at least three of the 13 seats it is contesting. The MGP has partnered with the Trinamool Congress (TMC), which is expected to win at best one seat. Analysts said that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was unpredictable and could pull off a surprise in a couple of seats.

But the real dark horse, they said, could be the little-known Revolutionary Goans (RG), which has fielded 38 candidates without forming an alliance with any party. The RG is a new entrant largely comprising youngsters who say their main goal is to protect the Goan culture and ethos—a slogan that resonates with the youths of the State.

A couple of independents such as Utpal Parrikar, son of the late Manohar Parrikar, former Chief Minister, and Savitri Kavlekar could potentially upset the BJP’s applecart.

The MGP, led by Sudin Dhavalikar, is expected to play a role in deciding which party forms the government. The party helped the BJP in 2017 but was tossed out of the coalition when the BJP poached enough defectors to form a majority. The MGP is in a strange spot. It is even more saffron than the BJP. Ideologically, the BJP is an ideal partner, but Dhavalikar has vowed never to tie up with the “turncoats”, as he calls them. The TMC attempted to ally with the Congress but was spurned by the grand old party. It will be interesting to see who the MGP goes with.

The Vijai Sardesai-led Goa Forward Party lost two MLAs to the BJP before the election, which has weakened its position and it will likely not be in the driver’s seat as it was in the post-poll scenario in 2017, when it won three seats and helped form a coalition that formed the government.

Goa recorded a 78.9 per cent voter turnout in this election, compared to 82.4 per cent in 2017, according to ECI data. The State’s population is approximately 18 lakh. Constituencies could comprise anywhere between 10,000 and 20,000 voters. Margins are narrow, which means that it is critical that people come out to vote.

A senior Congress worker said: “When the percentage is high, we usually see it as a vote for change. However, we will need to work hard and swiftly to stitch together an alliance if we fall short of the halfway mark. During the last election, we failed to form the government due to the inability of the party to act fast enough with the regional parties and independents.”

Subodh Kerkar, a well-known Goan artist and writer who closely monitors elections, said: “The results will throw some surprises. It will not be that straightforward. The BJP does not have Manohar Parrikar. However, it has the might and the resources. This time it is hard to predict the outcome. But the two big parties will certainly be battling it out.”

A political science academic, who wanted to remain unnamed, said that he believed the two-party system with small yet relevant regional parties would continue, but with a shift to Central politics. He told Frontline : “I think people are fed up of defections, fragmented and Machiavellian politics which began in Goa in the late 1980s. This time we may see some consolidation with an eye on stability.”

He added: “Although it is widely held that caste and religion are not as significant in Goa as in other States, these factors are not irrelevant either. Political parties in Goa need to work through a complex web of variables to pick the right candidate for each constituency. The results will give us an idea of what works.”

In 2017, the Congress won 17 seats but the BJP was ahead on the popular vote with 32.5 per cent against the Congress’ 28.4 per cent. Significantly, the MGP came in third with 11 per cent of the vote share. According to the academic, the MGP percentage could reveal a bigger picture and a factor that gives it the title of kingmaker. Additionally, independents won 11.1 per cent of the vote share, the AAP 6.3 per cent, Goa Forward 3.5 per cent, the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) 2.3 per cent, Goa Surakhsha Manch 1.2 per cent, United Goans Party 0.9 per cent, and Goa Vikas Party 0.6 per cent.

The new entrants in this election are the TMC and the RG. The Shiv Sena is also in the fray, in alliance with the NCP. It has been proven repeatedly that the candidate matters more than the party for most Goan voters. There are plenty of instances of MLAs jumping to another party and being voted back in subsequent byelections. Some examples are Vishwajit Rane, Health Minister, Babush Monserrate, Dayanand Sopte, Jennifer Monserrate, and Chandrakant Kavlekar. This time, Michael Lobo, a disgruntled former BJP member who switched to the Congress, is expected to win from Calangute. Pradeep Naik, a Congress party worker, said: “Michael has done a lot of work for us even though he was not a Minister. Recently, he helped taxi owners by subsidising the cost of the meters they were forced to install. Taxis are a major source of income for many Goans. They were hit badly during the COVID pandemic. If the candidate is known to help, people will reward him or her.”

The Valpoi and Poreim constituencies in North Goa have been the stronghold of Vishwajit Rane and his father Pratapsingh Rane, Congress stalwart and three-time Chief Minister. Vishwajit Rane quit the Congress to join the BJP in 2017. But that does not seem to have bothered his constituents, who say he has kept his promises. Pandurang Naik, a restaurant owner in Valpoi, said: “He provided almost 1,200 jobs in the government. That is a big thing.”

He added that people in the area trust the Rane family and their vote is essentially for the family. He said: “Divya Rane is standing from the BJP from Poreim. Since Pratapsingh is not contesting, people will vote for his daughter-in-law.”

Similarly, Rohan Khaunte, who won as an independent candidate from Porvorim in previous elections and has now joined the BJP, is expected to win regardless of the party he goes with. He joined the BJP in December. According to sources close to Khaunte, he said that he had to join the BJP as the party was stalling his work or did not respond to his demands.

Sadly, the constant party hopping also exposes blatant opportunism. Analysts said that this election would reveal whether people “are truly fed up with it or whether it will be the same old story”.

Modi in Mapusa

Manohar Parrikar was the BJP’s driving force during the 2017 election. Unfortunately for the BJP, Pramod Sawant has not been able to replicate Parrikar’s charisma and ability to co-opt politicians from across parties and also be seen as a trustworthy and competent leader. In fact, Goa Forward’s Sardesai said that Parrikar was the only reason he joined the coalition in 2017.

In the absence of Parrikar, the BJP parachuted its big names for campaigning. Home Minister Amit Shah went on a door-to-door campaign a few days before the election, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed a rally in Mapusa on February 10.

Felicia Gomes, a local resident in Parra near Mapusa, said: “Prime Ministers have come to Panaji for campaigning but never to Mapusa. I wonder if the BJP is worried.”

Delivering his usual rhetoric, Modi talked about Jawaharlal Nehru and how the Congress was responsible for delaying Goa’s independence by 15 years. In vintage BJP style, he tried to paint the Congress as callous and anti-national and against true Goans. But local residents said that this line would never work in the State. Felicia Gomes said: “Even [political strategist] Prashant Kishor needs to understand that Goa is unique. All these past issues do not matter. We need employment, support for tourism-related business and good infrastructure.”

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