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New Delhi: The Congress appears to have averted a potential split in its Goa legislative party for the time being. The party paraded five of its 11 MLAs at a press briefing on Monday, July 11 and claimed to have the support of six MLAs, although it didn’t name the sixth legislator.
The move has put the rebels in a sticky position, as at least eight MLAs should defect from the party to avoid disqualification under the anti-defection law.
The Congress high command in New Delhi sprung into action on Sunday night, July 10 when the party’s interim president Sonia Gandhi rushed senior leader Mukul Wasnik to Panjim to contain what appeared to be an escalating situation. A split looked imminent in the party when the Goa unit of the Congress was caught off guard when five of its MLAs – Michael Lobo, Digambar Kamat, Kedar Naik, Rajesh Faldesai and Delialah Lobo – missed a meeting and went incommunicado thereafter last week.
From then on, speculations were rife that the rebels within the Congress ranks may increase to eight – a necessary number for the defectors to avoid anti-defection law and merge with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Dinesh Gundu Rao, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) in-charge of Goa, immediately accused Michael Lobo, the former BJP leader who joined Congress only in January this year ahead of the assembly elections, and its own former chief minister Digambar Kamat of attempting to break the party at the BJP’s behest.
“One person – Digambar Kamat – did it to safeguard his own skin because so many cases are against him and the other person – Michael Lobo – did it for the sake of power and position. BJP wants to finish the opposition,” claimed Rao.
“BJP agents [are] trying for a two-third split in the Congress and offering huge money to MLAs to cross over,” Rao said.
Separately, former Goa Congress president Girish Chodankar has alleged that Congress MLAs were offered Rs 40 crore to join the BJP.
Although the chief minister Pramod Sawant rubbished the Congress’s accusations, the saffron party remained a talking point as the primary actor behind the latest implosion in the grand-old party because of the serendipitous presence of Union minister and Amit Shah’s close aide Bhupendra Yadav in Goa currently.
The chief minister, however, said that Yadav was in Goa to steer the pending cabinet reshuffle, although political commentators seemed to agree that the Congress in Goa is headed for a collapse. The development comes just days after the Uddhav Thackeray-led government in Maharashtra – in which the Congress was a partner – collapsed after a rebellion by Eknath Shinde.
Nonetheless, as a corrective measure, the Congress has removed Lobo from the position of its legislative party leader.
Political commentators believe that both Wasnik and Rao are clearly in the mood to take tough decisions to resurrect the party in the coastal state, and that may include overhauling the party leadership entirely.
The party, meanwhile, has moved a petition to the speaker seeking disqualification of Lobo and Kamat for “anti-party” activities.
Congress is not new to splits in Goa. In Pramod Sawant’s first term as chief minister, 10 of its legislators had joined the BJP to reduce the Congress into an irrelevant player in the assembly. But it seemed to have avoided a similar defection string at the moment.
A failed attempt?
Meanwhile, both Lobo and Kamat, who went missing ahead of the party meeting to decide its strategies in the assembly session that began on July 11, have backtracked from their earlier positions against the Congress leadership, indicating a failed attempt at corralling enough MLAs to avoid the anti-defection law. Anything less than eight MLAs defecting from the party can lead to their disqualification or could force them to resign and seek re-election.
All five legislators who had gone missing attended the first day of the monsoon session of the assembly on July 11 and claimed that the Congress legislative unit was intact. The alleged engineer of the rebellion, Lobo, went on to say: “There is nothing wrong. I don’t know what is the problem. All Congress MLAs were together. We went to South Goa for a meeting on Sunday. They (Congress leaders) again wanted to have another press conference which was not required, so we did not attend it.”
Similarly, Kamat also said he was very much in the Congress, and had told Rao in a meeting on July 9 that he was “hurt by the humiliation” that he faced in the party.
Disregarding their opinion, however, the Congress suspended both the leaders for indulging in “anti-party activities.”
Ranjan Solomon, a Goa-based political analyst and civil liberties activist, said that the “tactical retreat” by both the BJP and rebels indicate that the Congress may have avoided a split at the moment. He said on July 10, the BJP looked comfortably placed to gain the advantage from the Congress’s implosion but now the party’s leaders are more reserved.
“The BJP already has a comfortable number in the assembly. With the support of 25 MLAs in the 40-member assembly, it could have increased its strength further if Congress rebels joined its ranks. But it seems that Lobo or Kamat may not have the adequate numbers to deliver any strategic advantage to the BJP as yet,” he said.
“The rebels know that resigning and seeking re-election is not an option. They need to be in enough numbers to join the BJP and continue as MLAs for the rest of the term. Since most of the alleged rebels have won from Congress strongholds, it may be very difficult for them to get re-elected. The last assembly elections were an apt example. Nine of the 10 defectors from the Congress lost their seats,” he added.
The latest episode in the Congress is clearly bad optics for the party. As a show of strength in the run-up to assembly polls earlier this year, the Congress had made all its candidates take oaths that they will remain loyal to the party and will not switch sides in any circumstance. That oath has proven to be yet another poll gimmick, despite Congress having taken immediate corrective measures.