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Panaji: The last phase of the election in Goa has put a shaky Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the defensive, with the ruling party and its phalanx of big faces trying to distract the voter with an orchestrated attack against Jawaharlal Nehru and his role in Goa’s Liberation of December 1961.
Playing up Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spiel in parliament that Jawaharlal Nehru had deliberately “delayed” military action to free Goa from Portuguese colonial rule along with India’s Independence, Union home minister Amit Shah and defence minister Rajnath Singh – campaigning in Goa on February 9 – sang the same tune.
Had Nehru been a decisive prime minister, Goa would have been liberated in 1947, rather than 1961, Shah said, with Singh echoing the attack.
“In trying to demolish Nehru’s image, the BJP believes it will help them damage the Congress in this election,” says Konkani writer, former editor and lawyer Uday Bhembre.
With voter resentment against the BJP running high, the Congress campaign has moved apace, placing it as the principal challenger in this election, as the high-pitched disruptions of the Aam Aadmi Party and Trinamool Congress fade into the background.
Bhembre says the BJP’s attack on Nehru’s role in liberating Goa is a “deliberate attempt to distort history” and in keeping with the party’s political strategy to discredit him.
“Nehru was a perfect democrat, and his decision to hold back on military action has to be seen in the context of the political history of the time,” he says. Caught up in the spiral of problems in running the country post Independence, the Goa case would hardly have figured in the agenda of the new Congress government. “In any case, the decision to annexe Goa was not Nehru’s alone, but the cabinet’s,” says Bhembre.
With his hands tied by India’s commitment to the UN and the non-aligned movement to desist from using force in taking back Goa, the country’s first prime minister spent years exploring every diplomatic option to convince Portuguese dictator Antonio de Oliveira Salazar to give up Goa peacefully. The New York Times reported in July 1955 that Nehru had met with Pope Pius XII in Rome and brought up the “Goa question”.
Quoting from Pundalik Gaitonde’s book The Liberation of Goa: A Participant’s View of History, Bhembre says Nehru sent the Goan surgeon (Gaitonde) who had connections in London on various diplomatic missions abroad “to see that Salazar doesn’t force us to take military action”. Gaitonde, a critic of the colonial regime, had been arrested in Goa in 1954 and deported to Portugal. He was released in 1955, after which he became something of Nehru’s unofficial diplomat-at-large pushing for the cause of peacefully dismantling the colonial rule in Goa.
Calling out the BJP’s falsification of Goa’s resistance struggle is also personal for Bhembre. His father, Laxmikant Bhembre, was arrested by the Portuguese in 1946, sentenced to four years and deported to the notorious political prison in fort Peniche, Portugal (the jail is today the National Museum of Resistance and Freedom). Bhembre’s father spent 16 years in exile in Portugal before he was allowed to return to Goa after the Liberation.
Though the RSS played no role in the resistance to Portuguese rule, as Bhembre points out, in another attempt to reinvent the historical narrative, the BJP under the late Manohar Parrikar, felicitated scores of Sangh members for “participating” in the Goa freedom movement.
“The dynamics and politics of the liberation struggle of Goa had to consider the national and international geo-politics of that period. Today, historiography seems to be influenced by the colour of political ideology. Leaders are either humanised or demonised depending on which side of the political spectrum they belong,” says writer and professor of history Sushila Sawant Mendes.
Rebellions and departures
It isn’t the Congress alone that’s pinching the BJP’s Achille’s heel in this election. The party’s been hit by a series of departures and rebellions that’s likely to overturn any hopes it has of making it anywhere close to the single largest party, leave alone a majority on its own.
The most prominent face to desert the saffron party is the former union defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s son, Utpal. Snubbed for a ticket by the BJP to contest in Panaji, the seat his father had won six times, Utpal Parrikar is contesting as an independent to take down the BJP’s official nominee, Babush Monserrate. He felt obliged to get into the contest to “fight the criminalisation of politics” in his father’s constituency, Parrikar junior said.
“I’m fighting the biggest battle of my life and putting my career on the line,” he told The Wire, more so because he’s had to “burn bridges with those at the highest level in the country”. The 42-year-old computer engineer was summoned to Delhi by Shah, who tried to get him to change his mind, but to no avail.
Utpal Parrikar’s defiance has been particularly embarrassing to the BJP not just because of the optics and media coverage he’s drawn, but also because it has spurred sympathy for his cause among Manohar Parrikar’s supporters across Goa. “This will cause the party to lose at least 500 votes in each constituency across Goa,” says one of his campaign managers. With a small voter base of roughly 30,000 each, 500 votes are significant in close contests.
Parrikar’s son is not the only BJP rebel in the race. The party’s former chief minister Laxmikant Parsekar is also contesting as an independent from Mandrem. Several others have moved to other parties.
One of the BJP’s biggest losses has been the crossover of its former minister Michael Lobo to the Congress. Lobo, who’s been baiting the saffron party for months, could influence the fortunes of the Congress in at least four seats around his constituency, Calangute, where he’s consolidated his political position over the last 10 years.
For the Congress, its former chief minister Pratapsingh Rane’s decision to pull out of this election – in deference to his son Vishvajit, who’s made himself at home in the BJP – is also a setback.
In 2017, the Congress had emerged the single-largest party with 17+1 (NCP) seats in the 40 member House. The BJP had slumped to 13 seats, down seven from its 2012 tally. But it managed to form the government cobbling a majority with the Goa Forward Party (GFP), the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and independent MLAs. GFP has a pre-poll alliance with the Congress in this election. The MGP has tied up with the TMC.