In Parrikar's Absence, Goa's Governance Is Adrift and Politics Is in Turmoil

Both the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Goa Forward have made their stand clear – their support to the BJP would stay only so long as Parrikar remains at the helm.

Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar’s protracted absence from his state is leading to instability and has also raised concerns over who is actually calling the shots in the state government, which has faced some embarrassing moments in the courts and elsewhere.

One such moment is the handling of a major agitation against the closure of mining which, for want of cohesive orders from the top, spiralled into violence on the streets of the capital on March 19. Last week, the high court ordered a halt to the transportation of iron ore, which had been permitted to continue despite a Supreme Court ruling mandating a shutdown of illegal mining operations in Goa from March 16. The high court noted that it had been constrained to pass the ad interim order because no state official was prepared to own responsibility for allowing the ore transportation.

Parrikar, who took ill in mid-February, was flown to the US for treatment earlier this month. But official updates on his health have been few and far between. The last one, sent to the media a fortnight ago, claimed that Goa speaker Pramod Sawant had briefed Parrikar about “general and administrative matters” and the chief minister had “appealed to the people of Goa not to believe in rumours about his health being spread by vested interests”.

With the future of its coalition government in Goa at stake, and with no second-rung leadership to speak of, it serves the BJP to keep news of Parrikar’s health under wraps, as it does to question the propriety of journalists and opposition parties who have dared ask a few uncomfortable questions. In Goa recently, Union minister Nitin Gadkari said there would be no change of leader because Parrikar was merely on a two-month “transition period”.

Such assurances, however, haven’t cut much ice with its own MLAs, who have begun to grow restive with the vacuum of leadership, leading to squabbles between ministers and outbursts from its non-cadre MLAs Michael Lobo and Nilesh Cabral, who said there was no “functioning” government in Goa currently.

With strong voter bases in their constituencies, Lobo’s and Cabral’s links with the BJP are tenuous at best. Lobo told the media that he would have to seriously reconsider his ties with the party if Parrikar were to step down from the chief minister’s chair. “The minority leaders have been unhappy due to the BJP’s national policies, but they have been quiet because of Parrikar,” said Lobo. Seven of the 14 BJP MLAs are Catholics and most supported his point of view, he further claimed.

His discontent, said to have been prompted by the party’s move to project RSS insider Sawant as an alternative to Parrikar, highlights how the BJP’s over-dependence on a single leader in Goa for close to a quarter century – formerly a huge advantage over a squabbling Congress – is now showing a downside.

Parrikar’s medical condition has also brought into focus the shakiness of the current coalition to stay the course for a full term. “He is the glue that holds us together,” Goa Forward (GF) leader Vijai Sardesai told The Wire. Sardesai, who is part of the three-member cabinet advisory committee – an arrangement he disparages as “CM divided by three” – set up by Parrikar to run the government in his absence, seems once again to hold the key to keeping the coalition government afloat or floundering.

Goa Forward’s unexpected plunge into a tie-up with the BJP, spurning the Congress which emerged as the single largest party in last year’s election in Goa, catapulted all three of its MLAs to the cabinet. The BJP, with just 14 seats (in a house of 40, the Congress has 16, the Nationalist Congress Party one), is propped up by three members each from Goa Forward and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), and three independents.

Most significantly, in Parrikar’s absence, both MGP and Goa Forward wasted no time in making clear their stand – their support to the BJP would stay only so long as Parrikar remained at the helm. “They cannot push anyone they want down our throats,” Sardesai said.

Still shaken by the recalibration of the Goa mandate by Amit Shah and Gadkari with the tacit backing of governor Mridula Sinha, the Congress has played a wait and watch game, one that could now be turning its way. Goa Forward’s attempts to poach Congress MLAs haven’t worked so far. Facing a re-election, these MLAs unsure of winning on a non-Congress ticket – a risk they’re not willing to take.

The BJP’s calculated leaks suggesting it planned to call fresh elections in Goa with the Lok Sabha polls next year finds few takers in the state assembly. As one minister told The Wire, such a decision wouldn’t make it past the cabinet dominated by non-BJP MLAs. “The BJP may think it is smart, but are we fools? No one wants to face an election so soon, when not even a third of our term will be finished next year.”

Devika Sequeira is a freelance journalist based in Goa.