Assembly Election: Goa

Goa Assembly elections: An open field

Print edition : February 11, 2022

The Congress got a shot in the arm on January 11 when Michael Lobo, who resigned from the BJP the day before, joined the party in the presence of Leader of Opposition in the Goa Assembly Digambar Kamat and Goa Congress in-charge Gundu Rao. Lobo is a popular MLA and is expected to swing not just his own constituency of Calangute but four nearby seats for the Congress. Photo: PTI

The BJP’s Arun Singh and Goa election-in-charge Devendra Fadnavis announce the party’s much awaited first list in New Delhi on January 20. Photo: PTI

No single party has a clear advantage in Goa, where politicians connect with their constituencies beyond the party level and where constituents have not traditionally punished defectors.

Small but dynamite—that is perhaps the best description of Goa at the time of Assembly elections. The volatility of the political scenario in the election run-up is both interesting and absurd. Candidate selection and political party alliances are so unpredictable that everything can change even in the final hour before filing of nomination papers. As January 30, the last date to file nominations draws near, political parties are finalising candidate lists and the game of musical chairs that politicians seeking better opportunities play seems to be slowing down. The past has shown that parties will do anything to form a government, which leads observers to speculate that the present equations could change once the results to the 40-seat Assembly are known. This means that every contender can be a potential kingmaker.

The game recently turned from defections and poaching to forging pre-poll alliances. Until recently, the two national parties fought it out with support from regional players. However, the entry of the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has triggered a change in the formula. A depleted Congress got a sudden shot in the arm when a few heavyweights defected from the BJP and rejoined it. The party insists that it can fight this election with just the Goa Forward Party (GFP), a regional party led by Vijai Sardesai, as ally.

Sources said the Trinamool offered to share at least 16 seats so as not to split the non-BJP vote, but apparently the Congress did not show interest. In fact, senior leaders P. Chidambaram of the Congress and Mahua Mitra, the Trinamool’s Goa in charge, traded barbs on a couple of issues with regard to Goa on social media. Observers say even if there is a souring, the results may bring the two parties together in order to achieve the larger purpose of dislodging the BJP.

The Trinamool, which has forged an alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), is pitting Luizinho Faleiro against Vijai Sardesai in Fatorda, which is Sardesai’s bastion. One GFP worker said such moves such were sure to split the anti-BJP vote. The BJP and the AAP, as of the time of writing this report, are going it alone. Their leaders have categorically said they will not ally with anyone, though there are murmurs of the AAP joining the TMC-MGP alliance.

Subodh Kerkar, a well-known artist and political commentator from the State, said: “Essentially Goa’s new government will depend on the alliances. If the Congress and others do not get their act together, the BJP will have an easy ride to the throne.”

Also read: Politics on the trapeze

A new angle was thrown in recently when Sharad Pawar, Nationalist Congress Party chief, said his party was in “discussions” with parties who had the same goal of overthrowing the BJP government in Goa. Opinion writers in Goa ask whether a Maharashtra-style multi-party coalition is being cobbled together by the grand old man of Indian politics. “If anyone can pull it off, it is Pawar,” says a columnist based in Panjim. “Unfortunately, in trying to overthrow the BJP, the other parties will split the secular or non-BJP vote, giving the BJP an easy ride to victory. Pawar probably wants to beat this,” says the columnist.

Akshay Patil, a BJP worker and businessman in Panjim, said: “A significant development is the movement of a few senior politicians towards the Congress, which was reduced to four MLAs until a few weeks ago. I believe the Congress can pose a threat to the ruling party if it makes the right choices in who it gives the ticket to and who it allies with after the results.” He added that after the “turmoil” of MLAs quitting parties, joining the new entrants, then quitting again, there was finally some “settling down” now in the politics of Goa.

During the past one month, candidate selection has been a priority and much depends on who contests from which constituency. Following conversations with several local residents, Frontline found that for constituents, the candidate came before the party. Kerkar said: “As constituency sizes are small, ranging anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 voters, it is important that the candidate connects with his constituents. Caste and religion are secondary. Access to the candidate is key. In several cases, candidates could have switched parties but if they are available to constituents, have delivered on promises and shown that they can work, they will most certainly win.”

Vishwajit Rane, the State Health Minister, is an example of this trend. He contested from Valpoi on the Congress ticket in 2012 and 2017 and won. Then he switched to the BJP and won the byelection. “Although he is known to be a loose cannon and is apparently playing a dangerous game with his public criticism of Chief Minister Pramod Savant, his constituents seem to be faithful to him,” said a Congressman who knows Rane well. “Unfortunately, the spate of defections has left Goans disgusted with the opportunism, and that may have an effect on this election,” he added.

BJP first list

The wives of several BJP contenders have been clamouring for the party ticket. The party’s first list released on January 20 included Divya Rane, Vishwajit Rane’s wife, as its candidate from Poreim, a constituency held for close to five decades by her father-in-law and former Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane. The move is a jolt for the Congress. Party insiders feel Vishwajit Rane knows this is a safe seat for the family. If Divya Rane can flip the seat, it will be a huge upset for Pratapsingh Rane. The veteran politician, considered to be the Congress’ most competent leader, is yet to decide whether he is contesting.

Utpal Parrikar, the late Manohar Parrikar’s son, had expressed an interest in contesting from Panjim, his father’s seat. Devendra Fadnavis, the BJP’s Goa in charge, reacted to the suggestion saying: “Manohar Parrikar did a lot of work to establish the BJP in Goa. But nobody gets a ticket in the BJP just because they are the son of Manohar Parrikar or some leader.”

Also read: Utpal Parrikar denied Assembly ticket from Panaji

To this, Utpal Parrikar told the media: “The kind of politics that is happening in Goa, I cannot tolerate it. It is not acceptable to me. Are they suggesting that only winnability is the criteria [and that] integrity doesn't matter? Character doesn't matter? And you are going to give the ticket to a person who has criminal antecedents and we have to sit home quietly? This is not only about Panaji. What is happening in Goa politics is not acceptable. It has to change. Which is what I am trying.”

Utpal Parrikkar was referring to the infamous Babush Monserrate. The January 20 list showed he got the ticket. Monserrate has a few criminal cases against him, including an allegation of rape. For some inexplicable reason the brash and colourful Monserrate has a connect with his constituents. Utpal Parrikar is young and dynamic and comes from the Saraswat community, which accounts for a chunk of Hindu Goans. But the BJP knows it cannot afford to lose Monserrate. Monserrate’s wife, Jennifer, has been given the neighbouring Talegaon seat. The couple is known have a good hold on the area.

Many Chief Minister aspirants

The game of thrones in Goa is the subject of much joking. Almost every senior politician in Goa is a Chief Minister aspirant. Out of the 40 MLAs, six are former Chief Ministers. Pratapsingh Rane has held the post five times, Ravi Naik twice, and Digambar Kamat, Luizinho Faleiro and Churchill Alemao once each. Chief Minister Savant has been at the helm since Manohar Parrikar’s death. It is believed Luizinho Faleiro left the Congress to join the Trinamool on the understanding he would be made Chief Minister in the event of the party winning. He faces stiff competition from Sudhin Dhavlikar, leader of the MGP, which has tied up with the Trinamool.

Vishwajit Rane has made his chief ministerial ambition very clear. A close associate of Pratapsingh Rane said: “Junior Rane does not have an inch of his father’s calibre but his ambition knows no bounds.”

Michael Lobo, a well-known and reasonably popular MLA, left the BJP (where he apparently felt sidelined) on January 10 and joined the Congress the next day. Lobo’s move was the shot in the arm the Congress needed to fight this election. He is expected to swing not just his own constituency of Calangute but four nearby seats for the Congress. Lobo has surely been guaranteed a ministerial position, observers speculate, though perhaps not the chief ministerial post.

Also read: TMC, AAP eyeing a foothold

The BJP says Pramod Savant will remain its chief ministerial candidate. The AAP on January 19 officially named Amit Palekar, a lawyer and activist, as its chief ministerial face. Palekar belongs to the Bhandari Samaj, a numerically strong community in the State.

An interesting development is the emergence of an outfit called the Revolutionary Goans. Its leader, Manoj Parab, is young and dynamic. A Congress source said the party may well play spoilsport in a couple of constituencies.

Campaigns and strategy

Caste and religion may not be significant factors electorally in Goa, unlike in other States during elections. Yet, these things have an effect. Typically, the Congress secures the minority and secular vote. During the 2017 election, the BJP fielded seven Catholic candidates, and all of them won. While some Catholic leaders called them “Catholic opportunists”, the BJP had clearly made a shrewd and calculated move. Goa has a 25 per cent Catholic population that is extremely influential—a vote bank to be taken seriously. During a visit to Goa, Chidambaram said if the party was voted back, it would ensure that iron-ore mining, on which many livelihoods depend, would restart. He said a Congress government would also review the property and tenancy rights issue in Goa.

According to sources, the Indian Political Action Committee, the team behind the Trinamool supremo Mamata Banerjee’s stunning 2021 win in West Bengal, has been camping in the sunshine State for the past year. The IPAC’s strategy is to get a grasp on ground level politics; so the Trinamool’s candidate selection will depend on what works specifically in each constituency and seek to leverage that factor. A few election promises of the Trinamool, such as Rs.5,000 for one woman in every household every month, are expected to have an impact. One Trinamool insider said: “At least it is a move at the grass-roots level. Other than building some massive roads, the BJP has done little for the State. Unemployment remains high, mining is at a standstill and, of course, COVID’s effect on tourism has been a death blow for the economy. We are looking at helping people at the lowest level.”

Also read: Political flip-flops, Goan style

Local residents scoff at the AAP’s promises of better supply of electricity and water and education infrastructure as the State is reasonably well connected and highly literate. The party’s recent promise of Rs.3,000 for every unemployed youth may find favour but appears a desperate move at securing votes.

The BJP claims it will win with a majority. Commentators say the party will fall back on the Hindutva agenda. It is a plank that has not worked before in Goa but could have an effect this time as several candidates belong to the Saraswat and Bhandari communities that make up a large percentage of the population.

Defection drama

The defection drama, now not so much on display, has sadly created a blot on Goan politics. In 2019, a dozen MLAs from the Congress defected to the BJP. This allowed the BJP to become the majority party in the Assembly. All the MLAs won the byelections. In the run-up to the 2022 election, the Congress haemorrhaged further when it lost three more MLAs: former Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro joined the Trinamool; Ravi Naik joined the BJP; Alexio Reginaldo Lourenco joined the Trinamool but came back to the Congress.

Goa has witnessed a record number of legislators and non-elected politicians defecting to other parties. The Association for Democratic Reform, a non-governmental organisation that monitors politics in India, conducted a study on defections in March 2021 and named Goa as the State with the maximum flips in a given period of time. A report on the study says 52 per cent of 433 MLAs and MPs who defected between 2016 and 2021 were able to get re-elected. Winning after defecting sets a bad precedent. In the past five years, Goa saw an unprecedented 67 per cent of its 40 MLAs switch parties. The report says: “The ‘Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram’ syndrome and the never-ending ‘hunger for power and money’ has become a common practice amongst our parliamentarians and political parties. The most plausible reasons behind switching of parties are absence of value-based politics, lust for money and power, strong nexus between money and muscle and reward of office.” It could not sum up Goa better.