The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is on course to form the government in Goa for a third consecutive term. However, in contrast to 2017, when the BJP worked quickly and outsmarted the Congress in this manoeuvre, this time it appears to be confident and in no rush to head to the Panjim Secretariat. Uncertainty about the next chief ministerial nominee is apparently one reason for the delay. At the time of going to press, the BJP high command had said it would make the announcement after the festival of Holi and after its observers reached Goa on March 21. Meanwhile, Goa is a State in limbo. All administration and governance have come to a grinding halt in the absence of a government.
The BJP managed to get to the halfway mark without too much effort, winning 20 out of the 40 Assembly seats in the State. After co-opting an independent, it crossed 20, which gave it the right to form the government. Although safely in the driver’s seat, fissures within the party have surfaced. There is, for instance, the old rift between Pramod Sawant, acting Chief Minister, and Vishwajit Rane, former Health Minister. While Sawant was the chief ministerial face of the BJP campaign, Rane won the election with a massive majority. That seems to make him believe he is entitled to the top post.
According to news reports on March 17, BJP sources indicated that Sawant would be given another term as Chief Minister. Credited with the BJP’s outright win in Goa, Sawant will in all likelihood be rewarded for the party’s success. Sources say the Rashriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), with which Sawant has strong ties, has backed his claim. There is also a rumour that a senior BJP leader currently out of the State could be brought in for the top post. It may be the tiniest State, but there is never a dull moment in Goan politics. Until the announcement is made, there is many a slip between the cup and the lip.
Political analysts say nationally Goa is a lightweight. However, at the State level, it has become important for national parties to secure it. Along with its allies, the BJP is currently ruling in 17 States. Obviously, it would want to rule over as many States as possible so that it can control federal policies, which it has been trying to do for some time. Goa is one of the States where the Congress continues to have a presence. Unfortunately, it could not leverage the anti-incumbency sentiment and practically gifted the election away. The latest round of election in Goa witnessed new entrants such as the Trinamool Congress (TMC). Political analysts say this indicates that Goa has become a State to reckon with.
The BJP may have won the election, but a closer look at the winning candidates shows that several of those who defected retained their seats. A Lokniti- CSDS post-election survey of Goa says in spite of a strong anti-incumbency mood, proved by the fact that four in every 10 voters surveyed did not favour the BJP, the saffron leaders won only because the Congress vote was split between the other parties in the fray.
Prabhudesai, a veteran journalist and author of several books on the State’s history and politics, said: “Goa is unique. It does not follow the usual pattern of politics and I think all the parties, even the BJP and Congress, realised this during the 2022 election. The Congress may have lost, but do remember they were decimated by the defections in 2019. There was just one MLA left, Digambar Kamat. They still won 11 seats. And several of the Congressmen who defected also won. In Goa, usually the vote goes to the person and not party, so this is significant.”
Prabhudesai added: “I believe Goa is like the Gaul village in the Astrix and Obelix books. A brave little State surrounded by Goliaths. Its magic potion is communal harmony and history has shown they will keep this safe. The AAP [Aam Aadmi Party] and the BJP try hard at appeasing and targeting communities but the strategy failed. It may have some bearing but is not a decider.”
Race for chief ministership
In a departure from the practice of announcing the Chief Minister immediately after the results, particularly in a case where Sawant was the forerunner, the BJP has hidden behind a veil of secrecy for close to two weeks. Furthermore, in an unprecedented move on March 15, all 40 Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) took their oaths but ministerial berths and the official formation of the government were held back.
The delay has obviously sparked conspiracy theories. The most plausible is that the high command is sifting through the various permutations and combinations. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) had vowed not to support the BJP after the BJP broke the alliance with it and threw the MGP out of the government in 2018. Now it is believed that it has decided to back a Pramod Sawant government—essentially a case of the Hindu right wing banding together. Sawant will need the MGP’s support to stand his ground against Vishwajit Rane, who reportedly says he has a good number of MLAs backing his candidacy.
Vishwajit Rane, son of former Chief Minister Pratapsingh Rane of the Congress, had two earlier terms in the Assembly. But this is the first election that he has won on the BJP ticket. He left the Congress in 2017 and contested from the Valpoi seat as an independent candidate. He joined the BJP under Manohar Parrikar and was given the health portfolio a couple of months after the BJP formed the government in 2017. Local observers say Vishwajit Rane is extremely ambitious and his only agenda is to get to the top post. Even if he does not get it, he will keep angling for it. He will never allow Sawant to govern peacefully, they say.
Also read: Political flip-flops, Goan style
Rane, it is well known, never connected with Sawant and has repeatedly shown his disdain for the Chief Minister. A recent example is Rane putting out a congratulatory poster without Sawant’s face on it. It is believed Rane fought a shrewd campaign and did everything in his power to bring down Sawant. Interestingly, the wo leaders contested from neighbouring constituencies. The advantage Vishwajit Rane has is that the Sattari (70 villages) area under which Sawant’s Sanquelim and Rane’s Valpoi constituencies fall is a stronghold of the Rane clan. In fact, when Pratapsingh Rane decided not to contest from the Poreim seat after 50 years of serving the Congress, the BJP gave Vishwajit Rane’s wife, Deviya Rane, the party ticket from Poreim, knowing that the Rane connection would work. She won by 13,943 votes, the highest victory margin in the election.
Manoj Naik, a businessman from Honda, near Valpoi, said: “Owing to a smear campaign in the region, Vishwajit Rane successfully queered the pitch for Sawant.” The acting Chief Minister scraped through with a wafer-thin margin of 666 votes. “Sawant, however, has done a lot for the area and is viewed as a simple person who is easily available. Rane, on the other hand, has worked for his constituents but has a flamboyance and reputation that may not work in his favour,” Naik said. Prabhudesai also pointed that Sawant was a “dyed in the wool RSS man” who had worked his way up the rigorous BJP hierarchy. “It will be surprising if the BJP gives Rane, a newcomer, the post,” he said.
A Manohar Parrikar loyalist and the late Chief Minister’s right-hand man, Sawant was the obvious choice when Parrikar passed away in 2019. An Ayurvedic doctor by qualification, the 49-year-old Sawant began his political career in the 2008 Assembly election when he stood from Pale on the BJP ticket. He did not win but recovered in the subsequent election in 2012 when he beat the same opponent that he lost to by a margin of 14,000 votes. His tenure as Chief Minister has been lacklustre as he has largely been executing Parrikar’s projects. His handling of the COVID pandemic was not particularly dynamic. Yet, he is viewed as a modest, clean and accessible politician, which seems to be important in the State.
If Sawant takes the helm, he has a big task ahead of him. He needs to get Goa’s tourism economy, which took a hit during the lockdown, back on track. He will have to sort out pressing land issues, environment and mining concerns and several infrastructure issues in the sunshine State.