Politics

With Several Players in the Electoral Fray, Goa is Proving Difficult to Call

The BJP is campaigning fervently to hold on to Goa after its break with Sudin Dhavlikar and the MGP, while a fractured Congress, AAP and independents contest over small electorates.

A BJP rally in Panaji on January 28. Credit: Twitter

A BJP rally in Panaji on January 28. Credit: Twitter

Panaji: Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) leader Ramkrishna Dhavlikar – also known as Sudin Dhavlikar – has been called a politician for all seasons for his propensity to lean on the side closest to the winning post and and his ability to corner plum portfolios. For most of the 18 years that he has been an MLA, Sudin has managed to latch on to a government – Congress or BJP – even though his party had only a smattering of seats. In 2002 and 2007, the MGP managed just two seats and in 2012 it picked up three. With their alliance off the rails in this election, the BJP is calling its former partner ‘Maximum Grab Party’.

The vitriol is perhaps deserved, because the MGP has signalled that they would be open for business, provided Sudin becomes chief minister. He told the Times of India in an interview recently: “You will be surprised. We are doing very well. It is good we are not in an alliance with BJP. They are trailing. We would have faced the same music from the people,” adding, “If anyone wants us, they should support us.”

Not many would have heard of the MGP outside Goa. The party came into existence after Goa’s 1961 liberation from Portuguese rule. It came to power in 1963 riding on the popularity of the bahujan samaj leader Dayanand Bandodkar and ruled for 16 years, after which it was dislodged by the Congress. But the party, formed with the express intent to merge Goa into Maharashtra, was stopped in its tracks by India’s only referendum, the Goa Opinion Poll of 1967, which voted decisively against the merger.

The MGP has since struggled with the ‘Maharashtrawadi’ association, which was making it politically irrelevant. It even suggested that journalists use only the party’s acronym, rather than the full form.

In an election that’s proving difficult to call, the role of lesser players will assume significance after March 11 – if neither the BJP nor Congress manages a majority. The MGP currently seems positioned to do better than it did in the past three elections, which could propel it to dictate terms if it came to power sharing. It is contesting 33 of the 40 seats in a saffron alliance with the Goa Suraksha Manch and the Shiv Sena. This tie-up of hardliners is making the BJP seem less ‘saffron’ than its adversaries.

One of the big ironies of the ‘resurgence’ of the MGP, which espouses the cause of the bahujan samaj in Goa, is that it is run and entirely controlled by the upper caste Dhavlikar brothers – the younger of the Dhavlikars, Deepak, is contesting for a third term from Priol – with strong ties to the Sanatan Sanstha.

Sudin Dhavlikar at an event. Credit: PTI/Files

Sudin Dhavlikar of the MGP at an event. Credit: PTI/Files

The Dhavlikars have never denied their links to the fringe right-wing organisation whose members are being investigated for the killings of leftist leader Govind Pansare and scholar M.M. Kalburgi. They’ve even defended their right as a “priestly family to help our Hindu dharma” by supporting the Sanatan. The wives of both the MGP politicians are ‘sadaks’ in the organisation which is headquartered in Ramnathi, Ponda.

The fracture between the BJP and MGP has brought a certain edge to the election and the BJP is using everything in its arsenal to take down its ‘saffron’ opponents. In Priol, it has thrown its weight behind an independent, Govind Gaude, contesting against Deepak. It has compelled Sudin to spend a lot of time campaigning here to save his brother’s seat. The older Dhavlikar, who has held lucrative portfolios in PWD and transport, and is known to look after his voters – he gave the Sanatan government advertisements – is standing for a fifth term from Marcaim.

Congress battles itself

Though the newcomer AAP promises change for its supporters – many of them young Goans – political heavyweights still lumber across the election landscape, some of them quite visibly struggling to stay relevant. The Congress which has brought in 60% of the new faces has four former chief ministers in the contest – Luizinho Faleiro, Pratapsingh Rane, Ravi Naik and Digambar Kamat. Faleiro, Goa Pradesh Congress Committee chief, was sent back to revive a squabbling, demoralised side. Though he has managed to recoup the organisation to some extent, his campaign to return to state politics is not proving easy.

In Navelim, South Goa, where he is standing, the contours and demographics have altered dramatically in the 10 years he’s been away. Jogging shoes on, Faleiro trudges the dust. Every vote counts. His campaign manager bitterly complains that there are less than 24,000 voters here and seven candidates – some of them ‘sponsored’ by those inside the Congress. The BJP is supporting the strongest competition to Faleiro, an independent Avertano Furtado, and is said to have propped up the virtually defunct Goa Vikas Party to further fragment the ‘Catholic’ vote in these parts.

The election has not been fought yet, but some Congress leaders are already surveying the power stakes post the results, its members say. Kamat who ran the government in the worst years of illegal mining, is contesting the Margao seat for a seventh term has been a wily player. He survived the anti-Congress wave in 2012 despite the campaign against his role in the mining scandal.

But the constituency that’s attracting the most attention is Panaji, where the BJP run is being challenged by the rank outsider and maverick politician Babush Monserrate. This is a contest not so much between the BJP and the Congress, which is playing it by proxy through Monserrate (contesting from the United Goans Party), as it is a challenge for defence minister Manohar Parrikar to prove he still carries weight. Parrikar had won the Panaji seat five times since 1994. His move to the Centre saw his protegé, Sidharth Kuncalienkar, take the seat in the 2015 by-election. But a year later, a panel floated by Monserrate turned the tables on the BJP in the city corporation polls.

Babush Monserrate. Credit: Twitter

Babush Monserrate. Credit: Twitter

This is the first time Monserrate is contesting this seat. In the market, the chaiwallas are rooting for the underdog, but there are also 3,000 Saraswat (Brahmin) votes in contention that have usually stood by the BJP.

The extent by which the Goa election has turned into a prestige issue for Parrikar is evident from his relentless campaigning here – turning up at the smallest corner meetings in market places with his security detail in tow. This correspondent caught one such meeting at 9 pm at the Taleigao market on Sunday. A few rows of chairs were lined up on the narrow streets facing the podium from which the defence minister addressed the crowd even as traffic barely wended through. The BJP supporters were ecstatic. Never before have our meetings here drawn so many people, one of them said. But Parrikar had never before addressed a meeting in this constituency, I pointed out. This is how intense the challenge to hold on to Goa has become for the BJP.