Panaji, (Goa): The defection of 10 Congress MLAs to the BJP in Goa has not only plunged the already embattled national party into its worst crisis in the state in recent years but has also shaken the saffron party’s core supporters, who have been left astounded by the BJP national leadership’s gleeful embrace of the turncoats.
Three of the defectors will now be accommodated as ministers in the state government – a far cry from the legal requirement that all of them be disqualified for switching loyalties.
The Congress, which won 17 seats in the 2017 assembly election and was actually the single largest party – the BJP managed to win only 13 seats – is now left with just five MLAs.
The BJP rank and file’s disapproval is understandable – after all, the Pramod Sawant-led coalition government in Goa was under no threat. Four short of a majority on its own (17 in a house of 40) till Wednesday’s events, six members from the Goa Forward Party and independents had helped the BJP cruise comfortably through half the term. Modi’s overwhelming victory in May had also ensured the allies stayed on.
“I don’t know why they had to do it. I don’t see the reason. We already had a majority with the support of GFP and independents,” Nilesh Cabral, one of BJP’s more vocal ministers, said.
Goa Forward Party had been the BJP’s “most dependable ally”, the regional party’s leader Vijai Sardesai, reminded the BJP.
But none of that will matter now that the saffron party has gained a bloated majority of 27 overnight.
Sardesai, who scaled the ladder to the deputy chief minister position under the coalition deal, and three other ministers will likely be eased out in the cabinet reshuffle on Saturday to make way for the Congress defectors and deputy speaker Michael Lobo – credited with the Goa BJP’s “surgical strike on the Congress”.
Out in the cold, Sardesai’s comeuppance for his betrayal of the secular cause when he supported the BJP rather than the Congress after the 2017 assembly election result is the only silver lining in the latest political mauling in Goa, an AAP member told The Wire.
“The BJP has gained MLAs but lost trust,” Giriraj Pai Vernekar, a former aide of Manohar Parrikar, lamented. Parrikar’s son, Utpal, too lashed out at the “new leadership” for its opportunistic politics, adding that commitment and trust in the Goa BJP had died with his father.
In the eyes of many in the state, the BJP’s claim to occupy higher moral ground is hypocrisy at best. In this term alone, under Parrikar, the party rewarded former Congress chief minister Pratapsingh Rane’s son Vishvajit with a cabinet post for defecting from the Congress. In October last year, two more Congress MLAs were lured away to cynically bring down the numbers in the Goa assembly to keep the government from going under.
Just a few days after Parrikar’s death, two MLAs from the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (two-thirds of the MGP’s three MLAs) were spirited away to the Raj Bhavan in the dead of night to be sworn in as ministers after turning saffron.
The new BJP legislature party currently has more “Congress MLAs” (16 out of 27) than dyed-in-the-wool saffronites. And more Catholic MLAs than Hindus – to highlight an uncomfortable detail for a party championing the Hindu rashtra cause.
For all their venting on social media over the debasement of the BJP’s “culture and principles”, by the entry of the Congress turncoats – “vile scum” is how one bhakt described some of them – BJP voters are expected to line up and unquestioningly endorse the lotus symbol, irrespective of the candidate.
They did so in the May by-election when both Congress defectors were re-elected. An in-house mutiny ignited by the former chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar against the previous defections too was shut down and never heard of again. In the face of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s aggressive expansionist agenda, there’s little room for protest for those who might disagree with the methods, say observers.
On Thursday, speaker Rajesh Patnekar notified his acceptance of the “merger” of two-thirds of the Congress legislature party in Goa with the BJP, implying the merger was valid under the rules of the anti-defection law.
The media too played up the line that the current defections do not attract disqualification, simply because two-thirds had broken away from the legislature party.
Nothing could be further from the truth, says former judge and lawyer Cleofato Almeida Coutinho, who sees this as a deliberate misreading of the law to get away with unprincipled defections. “A legislature party split alone does not constitute a split in the party. For the merger of a national party, a split has to take place in the party at the national level,” he pointed out.
According to former secretary general of the Lok Sabha P.D.T. Acharya, the basic objective of the tenth schedule was to prevent defections, not facilitate them. Writing in The Wire in the context of the Telangana case where 12 out of 18 Congress MLAs defected to the ruling TRS, he said:
“The recent spate of defections in various state legislatures shows that defector legislators are under the impression that it is enough to mobilise two-thirds of the members of the legislature party and merge with the ruling party.
“Para 4 of the tenth schedule says that the original political party should merge with another party first. This would mean that the Congress party should merge with the TRS before these 12 MLAs can merge with that party. But there is no evidence that the Congress party has merged with the TRS. Therefore, there is no legally recognisable merger in Telangana.
“Further, the decision to merge with the TRS needs to be taken by the All India Congress Committee and not the Telangana Pradesh Congress Committee. The Jagjit Singh vs State of Haryana judgment says, ‘In case a member is put up by a national party it is a split in that party which is relevant and not a split in that party at the state level.’”
The BJP believes it has struck at the heart of vulnerability – a “surgical strike”, one member said – of the Congress party in Goa in hijacking such a large number of MLAs. This will give the saffron party a foothold in constituencies in South Goa where it has little presence.
Whether this will impact the next election is another matter. But the action, says the Congress, shows a deep contempt for voters and India’s multi-party democracy.
“This is an assault on the constitution and the murder of democracy. Is the BJP looking to make India a one-party state?” Congress MP Shashi Tharoor asked during the opposition protest outside parliament on Thursday.
What will be most interesting to see, however, is how MLAs like Babush Monserrate, the catalyst of the Congress exodus, and all given to slithering in and out of parties – from UGDP to BJP to Congress to GFP to Congress to BJP – will fare under the watchful eyes of Amit Shah’s lieutenants.
Devika Sequeira is a freelance journalist based in Goa.