With No Second-Rung Leadership, Parrikar’s Ill Health Sends BJP Scrambling in Goa

The BJP must now find a way to balance the ambitions of allies and its own MLAs if it is to ensure continuance of power in Goa. All eyes are on how Amit Shah and the party's central team play this one out.

Panaji: Chief minister Manohar Parrikar’s failing health has triggered an intense power struggle in Goa, but the hunt for an “acceptable” successor is proving to be a real challenge for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), whose continuance in power hinges on the support of a fractious bunch of coalition partners, whose leaders are now eyeing the top post.

Among those jockeying for power is union Ayush minister Sripad Naik, whose proposed recall to the state was shot down by Parrikar himself a few days ago and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) leader Ramkrishna Dhavlikar (aka Sudin), whose name has been rejected outright by the Goa Forward Party (GFP) and independents who support the Parrikar government. One of them, minister Rohan Khaunte told The Wire “it is out of the question” that Dhavlikar would have his backing.

Rumours have also been floated that the MGP would be asked to merge with the BJP to make the Dhavlikar option more palatable within and outside the party. The regional party is almost entirely controlled by the two Dhavlikar brothers who are known to enjoy a cozy relationship with union minister Nitin Gadkari. A BJP central team is expected to descend on Goa on Sunday to identify a replacement, but the task could take some political bargaining and Amit Shah-style heavy handedness with allies, given that Parrikar himself had discouraged a second-rung leadership from emerging from within the party.

The Goa CM was moved to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi on Saturday after his health took a turn for the worse during the Ganesh Chaturthi holidays. He had spent a couple of days at a private clinic here before being shifted. Parrikar, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February this year, has spent more time abroad these past seven months – at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre, New York where he was being treated – than in Goa.

His prolonged absence had created a power vacuum and paralysed the functioning of government. “Everyone knows the government is not running smoothly for many months now. People are saying it is high time the chief minister handed over charge to the senior-most minister,” said the MGP, which was among the first to rush in with its reaction after Parrikar was taken ill again.

BJP snatched victory from the jaws of defeat

After the result of the March election in Goa last year, the BJP managed to convert defeat to implausible victory when it came to power with the help of regional parties and a few independents. It also ingeniously repositioned Parrikar, who was Union defence minister at the time, to run the government here. That takeover was also largely smoothened by governor Mridula Sinha’s hurried acceptance of the BJP’s move without first inviting the single largest party, the Congress, to form the government. The BJP with 14 MLAs is supported by three members each from the MGP and GFP and three independents. The Congress has 16 MLAs, the NCP one in the 40-member house.

The Congress said a “confusion of epic proportions” was currently playing out in Goa, which would only hurt the prospects of the state, given that the BJP does not even have a second-in-command to replace Parrikar. “The very fact that a second-in-command was never allowed to be groomed shows how selfish interests have sacrificed the interest of the party and the state of Goa,” the party’s PCC chief Girish Chodankar said.

The BJP’s sole reliance on Parrikar in Goa and its failure to nurture a second line of leaders is proving to be the biggest sticking point in its current search for an in-house replacement for the chief minister. The challenge is further compounded by the prolonged leave of absence of two of its other ministers, Francis D’Souza (who is being treated at Sloan Kettering too) and Pandurang Madkaikar who has been hospitalised in Mumbai for months.

But it isn’t only the ambitions of allies that could scuttle the BJP’s power play in Goa. In the pragmatic need to accommodate its political partners – seven of them are cabinet ministers – Parrikar left a few of his own MLAs’ egos bruised. The challenge now lies in not only finding a face acceptable to the allies, but in also keeping its own flock from straying into the Congress camp.

“While we sympathise with the chief minister over his health, his snatching of the mandate from the Congress in 2017 and his mismanagement of major issues have driven Goa to the edge,” Chodankar said, adding that the governor had been “cautioned about a possible ploy by the BJP to impose president’s rule in Goa through the backdoor.”

Sources in the Congress said several independents and “others” had been in touch, as well as a few MLAs from the BJP itself. “Once we make up the numbers, we won’t hesitate to stake our claim.” With the fluid political situation in Goa, all eyes are now on how Shah and the Centre play this one out.