Assembly Elections: Goa

Goa: Politics on the trapeze

Print edition : January 14, 2022

J.P. Nadda, BJP national president, flags off a ‘Sankalp Rath Yatra’ in Panaji on December 22, 2021. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant is on his right. Photo: PTI

Pratapsingh Rane. Congress workers believe the octogenarian leader can still pull a surprise. Photo: Vijay Soneji

Opportunistic politics is at its worst in Goa, where senior politicians are switching parties in the scramble for seats.

Two months ahead of the Assembly elections, Goa has become a hotbed of political activity. Alliances are being forged, political parties from outside the region are entering the fray, the Congress is on the verge of collapse with MLAs deserting it, senior leaders are switching parties, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is revving up its election engine. With 40 seats, Goa Assembly is the smallest in the country, but all eyes are on it because very little is known about any party’s political strategy.

Historically, the two national parties, the Congress and the BJP, have battled each other with the support of regional parties. As the difference of one or two seats can decide the majority in the Assembly, even small regional parties have been kingmakers in Goan politics. But this time the two crucial regional parties, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the Goa Forward Party (GFP), have formed alliances with the Trinamool Congress and the Congress, respectively. Observers say this could be a game-changer.

So far, neither the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which made its debut in the Goa elections in 2017, nor the BJP have announced any alliance. The BJP has roped in a few heavyweights from other parties and may not be inclined to form alliances as it knows the new entrants will dent the secular vote, that is, the Congress vote. Also, its track record of forming alliances and abandoning them once it gains a majority has left every political party in Goa wary of it.

The BJP’s top priority obviously is to retain power in the State. At the national level, it is critical for the BJP to ensure a victory in one more State. The challenge for the Congress is to retain loyalists and back the right people. For the Trinamool Congress, Goa elections is part of its strategy to earn the national party status. Similarly, the AAP is seeking to broaden its base.

“Change is the only constant in Goa,” said a local journalist based in Panjim. “Currently, there is mayhem. The scramble for seats is leading to a game of musical chairs. We are witnessing the worst form of politics. Every other day, senior and well-known politicians are switching parties, mostly to the Trinamool and the BJP where they have probably been assured ministerial berths. There is an absence of ideology and leadership. It seems very opportunistic. The collapse of the Congress in Goa is responsible for the chaos,” he said.

Also read: Trinamool Congress’ expansion drive at national level

Sudin Dhavalikar, MGP leader, told Frontline that his party wanted the BJP out. He said: “They have not governed well and we need to give something new to the people of Goa. The Trinamool has done extensive surveys and research to understand the State. I believe they are a solid party to partner with.” Dhavalikar alluded to a tie-up with the AAP too, which, he said, would make them a tough coalition and opposition to the BJP.

With regard to splitting the Congress vote, Dhavalikar said: “With just two MLAs left in the Congress, there is no party to speak of. Only Pratapsingh Rane has some respectability left. No one trusts Digambar Kamat as he has switched parties before.”

Pratapsingh Rane and Digambar Kamat, both former Chief Ministers, are the two last men standing in the Congress, which had won 17 seats in the 2017 elections. After the BJP formed the government in 2019, 10 Congress MLAs defected to that party. Later, five more MLAs left the party.

Going by the present permutations and combinations, the TMC-MGP combine, along with a possible alliance with the AAP, will wrest a sizeable chunk of seats from the Congress. The combine may also be able to convince the Congress-GFP alliance to join it. Another scenario is of the BJP making a clean sweep.

During the past month, eight sitting MLAs have changed parties. Three joined the BJP, two of them joined the Trinamool, and one the AAP; an independent has extended support to the Congress.

However, a BJP worker told Frontline: “It is all very well taking these big names, but what happens to us? We have been loyal and need to be rewarded.” So, while the BJP may appear a cohesive and well-managed party, there are disgruntled elements that can cause problems, said the worker.

Luizinho Faleiro, a former Chief Minister of the Congress, was among the first to join the Trinamool in September this year. Churchill Alemao of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), another former Chief Minister (as part of the Progressive Democratic Front led by the Congress), too, has joined the Trinamool.

Faleiro is a seven-time MLA from Navelim and Alemeo is a four-time winner from the adjacent constituency of Benaulim in the southern region of Goa. The two are expected to provide a strong base for the Trinamool in the Catholic-dominated area.

The defection of Aleixo Reginald Lourenco, who was on the Congress’ first list of candidates for the 2022 elections, is a massive blow to the party. He told the media that there were too many unresolved issues within the Congress. Lourenco said he would always be a Congressman, but this time he would contest from Mamata Banerjee’s Congress.

Also read: Goa expedition: TMC, AAP eyeing a foothold

Constituencies in Goa are small, with the number of electors varying from 20,000 to 30,000. Typically, as in the case of local body elections, the MLA who develops a good rapport with the relatively small number of people and has the ability to work for the constituency is rewarded. This usually ensures that he/she retains the seat irrespective of the party.

Rohan Khaunte, an independent MLA from the Porvorim constituency, is an example of a leader being popular cutting across party lines. Khaunte, who was elected as an independent candidate in 2012 and 2017, was part of the Manohar Parrikar Cabinet in 2017. His work in developing Porvorim’s infrastructure earned it the title of a model constituency in India.

Following Parrikar’s death in 2019, Khaunte was dropped from the Cabinet, but he remained a politician to reckon with. It is however, interesting that Khaunte, who was once the BJP’s fiercest critic, has joined the party. He justified it at a press conference saying, “Political and ideological differences make vibrant legislation.”

Ravi Naik, six-time MLA and former Congress Chief Minister, has also joined the BJP. Significantly, Naik did not jump ship when 10 MLAs defected to the BJP in July 2019. Perhaps he saw no future in the Congress, which is truly in shambles, said an informed source in the party.

In early December, Jayesh Salgaonkar, one of three Goa Forward Party MLAs, quit the party and resigned from the Assembly to join the BJP. His departure from the regional party could be considered a big upset, said an informed source. “Obviously, the BJP is leveraging the popularity of these politicians. They seem to have roped in the ones who are definite winners before the other parties could get to them,” said the source.

The BJP also lost an MLA, Alina Saldanha from Cortalim, to the AAP. Saldanha told the media that the BJP had no principles and had done nothing for the State. Meanwhile, Prasad Goankar, an independent MLA from Sanguem, has extended his support to the Congress-GFP alliance.

On a sticky wicket

The alliance with the GFP might get the Congress a few seats to help them decide the government. Whether it will join forces with the motley crew of the Trinamool-MGP and the AAP will perhaps depend on what is on offer.

Said a GFP worker: “These parties are going to split the Congress vote. Too many divisions will only get the BJP back. The public wants the BJP out. Parties such as the Trinamool are here only for vote share. Not to work for Goa.”

Also read: Political flip-flops, Goan style

According to the Congress source, GFP leader Vijay Sardesai had nowhere else to go and therefore opted for the Congress. Sardesai, a popular leader thanks to his “save the Goan culture” or “we are Goans” campaign, cut his teeth as a politician with the Congress youth wing in the late 1990s. He quit the Congress in 2012 when he was denied the Assembly ticket. He won as an independent. In 2016, he launched the GFP, which has a sizeable following in the South of Goa. His conflict was with Faleiro. With Faleiro gone, Sardesai says he can once again work with the Congress.

After sitting on the fence, Pratapsingh Rane, a Congress stalwart, eventually announced his decision to contest. An octogenarian, Rane has been in State politics for 50 years and is said to have told his supporters that it may be time to pass on the baton. His son, Vishwajit Rane, who defected to the BJP, is causing trouble once again. According to local media reports, Vishwajit Rane says he will contest from the same seat as his father’s. He told the media it was time for his father to retire. Political observers in the State, however, say Pratapsingh Rane is one of the most respected and strongest Chief Ministers Goa has seen and he still has it in him to pull a surprise.