Panaji: The word ‘U-turn’ has turned into a rallying call for almost all those targeting the BJP in the Goa election. Elvis Gomes, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate, uses it as the punch line in his frenzied campaign. “This government has done so many U-turns, the word will soon become part of school textbooks in Goa,” he said. In the Congress manifesto, U-turn finds mention in the very first para: “The current government has emerged as the epitome of U-turns, reneging on all its promises.”
Travelling around Goa trying to pick up the pulse of this election, an anti-incumbency undercurrent is clearly evident. What do you hope will come from this election, this correspondent asked two well-educated and articulate middle-aged men who were listening to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s address late evening in the heart of Margao on Sunday. Kejriwal has campaigned intensely here for three days over the weekend hoping to catch undecided voters like these two. Change, one of them, Jason Cardozo and his friend tell me, is what Goa needs. “The BJP promised us a lot, but it proved no better than the Congress. Now there has to be a change.”
Though the opposition in Goa – principally the Congress which had been practically comatose since its stinging defeat in 2012 – was all at sea, the first signs that an undercurrent for change was picking up came from an intelligence report commissioned by the BJP some three months ago. The internal survey predicted a hung assembly for Goa, giving the BJP a maximum of 16 seats, with the Congress not far behind with 12-15 seats in a house of 40 members.
The rumble started in August when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) sacked its Goa chief Subhash Velingkar for his very strident attack of defence minister Manohar Parrikar. Velingkar, a strong votary of teaching in the mother tongue in primary schools, did not go quietly. Credited with setting up the RSS in Goa, the former school principal did the unthinkable – he defied Nagpur and formed a breakaway Goa RSS prant. Within months, the BJP which had seemed to be cruising along comfortably to a second term in Goa with the opposition in shambles, has been confronted with what would have seemed implausible till then – a political cleave in its ideological core group.
Vowing to bring down the BJP (identified completely with Parrikar in Goa) for its slight to him and for reneging on its promise to change the government’s medium of instruction policy that extends grants to English primary schools run by the church, Velingkar floated a political wing of the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch – the group lobbying to change the government’s school grants policy. Set up in October, Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM) has taken a plunge in the election.
Sensing opportunity in the shifting political winds, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) too split from the BJP earlier this month. The MGP’s dominant face Sudin Dhavalikar made no secret of the fact he is in the race for the Goa chief minister post. In 2012, the BJP had contested 35 seats in an alliance with the MGP (BJP 28, MGP 7) and won a simple majority of 21 on its own (plus the MGP’s three seats), this largely because of the anti-Congress wave and the church throwing its weight behind the anti-corruption campaign in that election.
In election 2017, the MGP is heading an alliance of counter saffron groups ranged against big brother BJP, which is no doubt worrying for Modi’s party and Parrikar in particular, in whose hands the party’s strategy is vested. The MGP has tied up with the GSM and Shiv Sena and will contest in 30 of the 40 seats (MGP 22, GSM 5, SS 3) and support independents in a few others. The saffron alliance is giving the BJP heartburn in at least eight constituencies. Among the more notable ones is Pernem in North Goa where the MGP has craftily fielded the former Congress minister Babu Ajgaonkar to take on the BJP speaker Rajendra Arlekar. Ground surveys indicate that the scales here are tilting toward the MGP man.
Chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar too has been compelled to trudge through the heat and dust to retain his seat in Mandrem where a split in the saffron vote could favour the Congress candidate Dayanand Sopte. Parsekar is relying heavily on his daughter Shambhavi’s door to door campaign with women voters. In St. Andre, where the BJP bagged a Congress seat in 2012 riding the anti-Congress sentiment, the MGP candidate will make a BJP rerun all the more tough, as will the Cortalim seat, where the BJP’s sole woman candidate and minister Alina Saldanha is clawing for a return.
Not one to be outdone by sudden political upheavals, Parrikar had already shored up a back-up plan. In a move that is being seen here as extremely cynical, Parrikar who fought the 2012 election on the promise of ending corruption, inducted two tainted Congress MLAs into the BJP a few weeks ago for their “winnability” quotient. The union minister himself had filed a case against Mauvin Godinho in a power scam and threatened to expose corruption in a land deal involving the other, Pandurang Madkaikar. Both are now BJP candidates which prompted the Congress to respond – good riddance and thank you for cleaning up the Congress party.
The counter saffron move may have put the BJP on the backfoot in the Goa election, but no means is the party down and out and could emerge the single largest party, no small thanks to fragmentation of the ‘secular’ vote.
The Congress which seemed from all initial analyses in a good position to make a comeback if it made the right moves, has failed to clinch a crucial tie-up with the Goa Forward, formed by a breakaway Congress group. This could damage the prospects of both parties in at least three constituencies. Bogged down by its perennial bickering at the top level and the last-minute announcement of candidates, the party has even left one of its ‘strong’ seats, Siolim, without a candidate. It has, however, formed an understanding with the United Goans Party and an independent.
More worrying for the Congress and a big plus for the BJP is the presence of the AAP in the Goa election in a big way. AAP is contesting 39 seats, more even than the Congress (37) and BJP (36). But it is in constituencies with a large presence of Catholic voters that the AAP is likely to hurt the Congress. It has failed to make a dent in BJP and MGP strongholds, which even its members admit. “The AAP in Goa is good for us,” Parsekar remarked.
All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijay Singh has been far more scathing in his attack on Kejriwal’s strategy. The AAP, he said, was only targeting states where the Congress is strong. “It wants to expand in the rest of the country at the expense of the Congress to finish it.” An AAP official who’s been camped out in Goa for over a year now believes the Congress has only itself to blame. “Any party is free to come in and contest an election. If the Congress believes this is their state, why didn’t they work to keep it?” he asks. AAP goes where it senses there’s a connect with voters, he said.
On the campaign trail here on Monday, BJP president Amit Shah said Parrikar would run Goa’s affairs whether he remained at the Centre or returned to Goa. The hint that Parrikar could return to Goa as chief minister is meant to put out the message that the BJP would be open to post-poll tie-ups if it came to it, and the current chief minister would have no claim on the seat. The MGP too has been rather silent on which way it might head after the result. It has been in government with both the Congress and BJP in the past.