Ground Report: Goa Wants Change, But Isn't Sure Who to Vote For

Rising unemployment and widespread allegations of corruption against the BJP government in the state have made calls for anti-incumbency louder. However, no clear opposition to replace the ruling party is currently in sight.

Listen to this article:

Panjim: Politics in Goa is currently in a state of unprecedented flux. Every day, leaders and MLAs from the tiny state on India’s west coast are changing political allegiances, putting Goans in a deep dilemma as to who to cast their vote for just two months before the one of the most touted assembly elections of 2022.

In the last three months, at least nine MLAs of the 40-member assembly have changed their political affiliations. Besides, local political leaders and former MLAs are switching parties on a daily basis.

Of the nine MLAs who have switched sides, three joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), two joined the Trinamool Congress (TMC), one joined the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and one joined the Congress, in addition to an independent MLA also extending support to the Congress. Apart from them, Milind Naik, senior minister and BJP MLA from Mormugao, resigned after Congress leaders accused him of sexual exploitation.

In order to understand the prevailing mood and political dynamics, The Wire spent the last ten days visiting various constituencies across the state.

Anti-incumbency against BJP

A deep anger against the ruling dispensation can be observed in Goa, cutting across religion and caste demographics. Growing unemployment, rising prices of essential commodities and rampant corruption over the government’s ten years in power are some of the primary factors driving the anti-incumbency.

When asked what will happen in the upcoming election, one Mahesh Naik, who runs a small tea stall in Margao’s Gogol area said, “God knows what will happen but one thing is certain; the BJP is not winning.”

Bypassing the 2017 mandate, the BJP formed the government that year by allying with the regional parties like the Goa Forward Party (GFP) and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP). Former chief minister and BJP veteran Manohar Parrikar had brokered the deal and kept the party united, despite the cracks in the foundation within.

However, after Parrikar’s death in 2019, the BJP kept itself in power by engineering defections, as evinced by the presence of seven defectors in its current 12-member cabinet.

For the first time in 27 years, the BJP will not have Parrikar at the helm for the Goa election. Political observers have opined that the saffron party is in disarray as factionalism has grown deep in light of the RSS’s excessive control.

Also read: Is There a Conflict of Interest in a Prominent Goa Media House’s Close Links to BJP?

Speaking to The Wire, former state election commissioner and political commentator Prabhakar Timble said, “No doubt that there is massive anger against the BJP on ground, but it is to be seen how opposition parties capitalise on it. The people of Goa are not liking the fact that politicians are changing parties like they change their clothes. Goans are fed up with this politics and want to teach these politicians a lesson.”

Goa chief minister Pramod Sawant, state BJP chief Sadanand Tanavade inducting Saligao MLA Jayesh Salgaonkar. Photo: BJP4Goa.

“The congress is planning to bring in fresh faces this time; they don’t have old faces anyway.” Timble continued, “Though the Congress has to be the natural alternative, – and it definitely is – the response of the party and leadership is perceived to be slow. But the BJP is facing serious internal issues as the original kariyakartas are revolting in many of their strongholds. MLAs are deserting the party; some are accusing their own Minister of a scam.”

Siddesh Rane, a local businessman and a resident of Panjim said, “Since I started voting, I only voted for BJP because Parrikar was running it. After his death, Delhi is running the Goa government; they are looting our state, destroying natural reserves. Goans died due to lack of oxygen but no one was punished. First, the government said, inquiries of deaths will demoralise frontline workers. Later, the health minister said, no one died of oxygen shortage. Is this the way you run a government? Whatever it is, we are voting for change this time.”

Too many, too small

In the last assembly election, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) secured around 6% of the vote share. This time, the party has jumped into the fray with more resources and a plan of action. However, in the last five years, the party has failed to nurture a leader who can lead the party in the state. The party still doesn’t have a leader who is well-known across Goa. The party’s state convener Rahul Mhambre is not popular beyond his hometown of Mapusa and similarly, new inductee Amit Palekar is mostly known as an advocate, not a politician.

The AAP’s Goa campaign is hinged on three primary factors: national convener and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejeriwal’s image; inducting popular leaders from other parties; and promising various social-welfare schemes. To this end, the party already inducted leaders like Dayanand Narvekar, Mahadev Naik, Alina Saldanha, Pratima Coutinho and former BJP leader Ganpat Gaonkar.

Aam Aadmi Party campaign cutout with Arvind Kejriwal’s face. Photo: Himadri Ghosh.

Kejriwal’s promise of free pilgrimages to various religious centres didn’t resonate with the people of Goa and even the AAP’s other promises such as free electricity, increased financial assistance for women and aid for the unemployed youth saw only tepid response from locals.

Clenton D’Souza, a resident of Old Goa said, “The AAP’s free tourism promise is hilarious. Goans are capable of going on tours by their own means. They should tell us about their vision on the environment, mining, and tourism. There is no clarity on how they intend to tackle unemployment. If the AAP is suggesting a change in Goa’s politics, why are they inducting tainted leaders like Dayanand Narvekar and Mahadev Naik?”

“The AAP has successfully created a niche for itself in Goa’s political space and has regularly taken up issues of political consequence. However, the party has failed to build a mass base outside of certain pockets and lacks a leader with popularity across the state. While the party can be expected to increase its vote share, it has made little headway as it has failed to explain its raison d’etre beyond being a party that is against corruption and freebies, a pitch that has gained little traction,” said a Panjim-based journalist.

Also read: As AAP Eyes ‘National Party’ Status With 2022 Assembly Polls, A Look at Where It Stands Now

The TMC is the party with maximum visibility in the state. Most of the hoardings and virtually every lamp post in Goa have West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s face plastered on them. The party, on the other hand, is aggressively engineering defections.

Mamata Banerjee’s face plastered all across Goa airport highway. Photo: Himadri Ghosh.

The latest was prominent Congress leader and MLA from Curtorim, Aleixo Reginaldo. Before this, sole NCP MLA Churchill Alemao, along with his daughter Valanka, also joined the TMC. Other leaders like Raju Cabral, Salim Volvoikar and Kiran Kandolkar joined the party a few months prior.

TMC’s public meeting in Benaulim to induct MLA Churchill Alemao and his daughter Valanka Alemao. Photo: Himadri Ghosh.

The TMC’s activity is solely run by political strategist Prashant Kishor-led consultancy firm, the Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC). From negotiating with leaders to join the TMC to designing the campaign and even assisting probable candidates in daily campaigning and stitching alliances with other parties, everything is done by the I-PAC.

The TMC recent decision to join hands with Goa’s oldest party, the MGP, could prove to be a double-edged sword, given that MGP president Deepak Dhavalikar and MLA Sudin Dhavalikar have publicly endorsed right-wing organisations like the Sanatan Sanstha which has even been named on the chargesheet for the Gauri Lankesh murder case.

Moreover, in last ten days, two MGP candidates, Pravin Arlekar and Premendra Shet from the party’s strongholds of the Pernem and Mayem constituencies have resigned citing the “TMC-MGP alliance.” While Shet has already joined BJP, Arlekar is in advanced talks with the saffron party.

Political observers believe both the TMC and the AAP can split anti-BJP votes in a few pockets but overall, both will remain only marginal players.

“Of late, the AAP has increased its traction due to the entry of the TMC. As Congress leaders got poached, the acrimony has not gone down well, making the AAP a more acceptable opposition,” Goan advocate and political analyst Cleofato Coutinho told The Wire. “The TMC has no traction. They are solely dependent on the face and image of poached leaders, loaded with aggressive publicity campaigns. The MGP had a good chance of staying at 4-5 seats but the chemistry between the two cannot work. The alliance will pull down the MGP,” Coutinho continued.

Also read: How Prashant Kishor’s ‘Project Goa’ for TMC Is Failing

Broken Congress the default beneficiary?

While the Congress party may appear fractured in many other states, this is nothing compared to its situation in Goa. The party, which emerged as the single largest party in the 2017 assembly election by bagging 17 seats, now has only two MLAs remaining in the assembly: veteran leader and the longest-serving chief minister of Goa Pratapsingh Rane and fellow former chief minister Digambar Kamat, the latter being the party’s most probable face for the upcoming election.

An eye check-up camp organised by probable Congress candidate Amit Patkar in the Curchorem constituency. Photo: Himadri Ghosh.

The Congress is the least visible party in the state and what’s more, it failed to capitalise on the issues which actually rocked the state in the past month.

BJP MLA from Panjim Atanasio “Babush” Monserrate, who switched over to BJP in 2019, recently alleged that Public Works Department (PWD) minister Deepak Pauskar had sold engineering jobs for money. “I have proof that people have paid the minister between Rs 25-30 lakh for each engineer post and that the minister sold the posts to the highest bidder. It is a Rs 70 crore scam,” Monserrate told the media. But the Congress failed to capitalise on this infighting.

Additionally, senior state Congress leaders accused minister Milind Naik of sexual exploitation and submitted evidence of the same via a formal complaint to the police. Naik was forced to resign when this came to light but again, the Congress failed to make the most of the scandal.

Speaking to The Wire, the Congress’s South Goa district president, Joe Dias said, “The BJP and other political parties like the AAP and TMC are trying their best to break into Congress holds and they have been successful to an extent. But the Congress is the only party which has presence across all 40 constituencies in Goa. The Congress party’s strength lies with the people, not with the leaders. Leaders may have left but voters stand strong with the party.”

While many have written the Congress off in Goa, The Wire found that minority voters (both Muslims and Christians) in many constituencies are consolidating in favour of the party as anger against party-hoppers reach new heights.

In the Salcette, Mormugao, Tiswadi, Quepem and Bardez talukas, there are around 17 seats where the minority electorate is more than 40% and where they significantly determine electoral outcomes. What’s more, there are another seven seats in the state where minorities account for more than 25% of the votes. Whether this is enough to propel the Congress to victory, however, remains to be seen