With a Zumba dancer, mining activists and single parents as candidates, AAP is defying prejudices in the upcoming Goa elections.
Panaji: She’s a single mom and a Zumba dance instructor. In 2013, she was first runner up in the reality TV show Dance India Dance Supermoms. ‘I’m ready to face the dirt,’ 34-year-old Cecille Lee Rodrigues advertised boldly on her campaign poster. And dirt did fly. On Facebook, where the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is most visible, the BJP trolls came out in packs to take her down as soon as AAP put her name out in its list of candidates in the upcoming assembly elections.
“They didn’t wait even a day. They mocked my profession and personal life, and were out to destroy my image. This is why women don’t get into politics,” Rodrigues said. But she was prepared for what was coming. She had warned her parents and her spirited defence has won over scores of fans, many of whom are rooting for her as voters. The mother of a six-year-old, Rodrigues is contesting from Taleigoa and is up against the seasoned BJP hand Dattaprasad Naik and the Congress’ sitting MLA Jennifer Monserrate, the wife of Babush Monserrate, who has held sway over this pocket of the state since 2002.
Rodrigues is just one among the many young candidates AAP has fielded in the Goa election. In interior Goa, where tribals have been marginalised in favour of mining, anti-mining activists Ravindra Velip, 28, and Joao Fernandes, 46, are running the race as AAP candidates in Sanguem and Quepem respectively. AAP has five women candidates, the Congress three and the BJP just one, the sitting MLA and minister Alina Saldanha who came into the picture after the death of her husband Matanhy Saldanha.
In a Goa weary of political trickery and jaded faces, it’s not difficult to figure out why AAP, trying to crush the axis of BJP-Congress-Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) dominance, would resonate with the young; 43% of Goa’s 11.1 lakh voters are below 40, 22% haven’t yet touched 30.
AAP’s Delhi win in 2015 snapped him out of political despondency and propelled him to the party’s organisational nerve centre in Panaji, says Ashley Rosario. A journalist, Rosario has put his career on hold, and started volunteering full time with AAP six months ago. Scores of other volunteers are fanned out in each of the 40 constituencies. Some 1500 of the party’s national volunteers have been in and out of the state over the past few months. The party even has 20 volunteers from its overseas chapter here.
Apart from the BJP, AAP has been the most systematic in its Goa campaign. Yet that alone will not be enough as the spectre of the BJP’s return looms large over the Catholic segment of voters with whom the AAP has made a significant connect.
Split in the anti-BJP vote
In a small café that he runs in the state’s capital, a 27-year-old second-time voter tells me how his mind was made up months ago after he attended Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s May 2016 rally. The AAP would have his vote. But now he is conflicted, he says. A vote for AAP could bring the BJP in, in a four-way contest in Panaji between union defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s protégé Sidharth Kunkalienkar (BJP), the Congress-supported Monserrate (United Goans Party), AAP’s Valmiki Naik and Ketan Bhatikar (Goa Suraksha Manch).
Another young guesthouse owner said his “heart” is with AAP, but a lot of voters like him in the city are having to rethink their choice in light of the emerging anti-BJP sentiment and the division of the secular vote. Parrikar, who has won five elections in Panaji since 1994, has formed a connect with the ‘Catholic voter’ in the capital. But many of them feel let down by the current government. Minorities make up a third of the 21,500 voters in this constituency.
‘Silent vote’ building for AAP
On Republic Day, green campaigners lobbying for a people’s manifesto took over the Garcia de Orta garden in Panaji. At the heart of the movement is the indefatigable environmentalist Claude Alvares of the Goa Foundation. Alvares and his supporters, who are pitching for a permanent state fund for mining to end the control of big players and vested interests in Goa’s mining industry, have gathered support from 50 NGOs. AAP is the only major political party to have endorsed the permanent fund campaign. No doubt it is among such groups that AAP has found a base.
Long-time activist Patricia Pinto senses a “silent vote” building for the newcomer party. People like her have had enough, she says, of fighting the system and being let down by both the Congress and the BJP. If the AAP gets even a few seats, it would be a start, because she sees them capable of shoring up a strong opposition.
Yet the picture, in large swathes of ‘Hindu-dominated’ North Goa, is largely different. The fight here is between the BJP, a resurgent MGP (backed by the rebel RSS leader Subhash Velingkar) and the Congress in some pockets. AAP has a negligible presence in these areas, says school-teacher and anti-mining activist Ramesh Gauns. As RSS chief in Goa, Velingkar was instrumental in pushing for the first alliance between the BJP and MGP in the 1994 election, he says. Since then, the national saffron party has systematically undermined the MGP’s bahujan samaj Hindu vote bank, gradually pushing the party to the margins. In 1994, the MGP took 12 seats, the BJP four. By 2007, the MGP was down to just two seats. In 2012 it won three.
Gauns believes the larger fight is for Velingkar’s survival as the figurehead of the saffron agenda in Goa, and it is ironic, he says, that he should now be using the MGP – seen as the repository of bahujan samaj aspirations – the party he tried to run aground, as the instrument of his return.