Parrikar's Panaji Seat: Why the Stakes Are so High for the BJP

By-elections to four assembly seats hold the key to the survival of the BJP government in Goa.

Panjim: The BJP, which has hung on to power in Goa through a strategy of engineered defections and more recently the brazen poaching of MLAs from its long-time ally, Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), has a lot riding on the outcome of by-elections to four state assembly seats.

Voting for three seats was held on April 23. But it is the election to the Panaji seat that fell vacant after Manohar Parrikar’s death that is turning into a political cliffhanger and a challenge to the survival of the current state government. 

Panaji votes in the last phase on May 19.

Except for the two years he served as defence minister, Parrikar had held the seat since 1994. Retaining the capital is not only a prestige issue for the saffron party but also a leadership test for current chief minister Pramod Sawant, whose choice of candidate for the Parrikar constituency has failed to enthuse the party’s karyakatas.

Also read: BJP’s Dynasty Test in Goa: Will It Endorse Parrikar’s Son’s Legacy Bid?

Turning down Parrikar’s son Utpal’s bid to make his political debut from his father’s seat, the BJP, at the last minute, decided to go with former MLA Siddarth Kuncalienkar who was Parrikar’s aide. While the decision has resonated well with Kuncalienkar’s supporters in the local mandal and spared the party the taint of ‘family raj’, a defeat in Panaji could trigger a challenge to 46-year-old Sawant’s leadership from a gamut of sulking ‘seniors; who’ve pointedly steered clear of the campaign.

This is in clear contrast to the Congress, which had an early start and has brought on board almost all its MLAs to campaign for its candidate, Babush Monserrate. The Congress last won the seat in Goa’s capital 30 years ago. It now senses an opportunity to turn the tables on the BJP, which formed the government in 2017 despite the Congress emerging as the single largest party in that election.    

For all the controversy that usually surrounds him – the BJP has persistently raked up the criminal cases against him – Monserrate’s street-smart politics and the fact he holds sway over Panaji’s municipal corporation has made the saffron party jittery. A day before the filing of nominations, the Congress candidate’s panel also swept the panchayat elections in Taleigao, the constituency next door.

Manohar Parrikar. Credit: Facebook/Manohar Parrikar

What makes the Panaji election all the more interesting is the presence of the former Goa RSS chief Subhash Velingkar, who is contesting for the Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), a regional outfit he launched after a falling out with Parrikar.

Though he claims he is not in the fray to merely “cut into the BJP vote” though he believes they will “silently” vote for him, Velingkar has strategically trained his armour against the BJP and Kuncalienkar, holding back against the Congress. In an interview to this journalist some months ago, he blamed BJP president Amit Shah and Parrikar for his sudden sacking from the RSS. 

In a constituency of just over 22,000 voters, the loss of a thousand votes could tilt the scales either way. The Congress too will have to contend with AAP eating into its votes.

Also read: Manohar Parrikar: A Legacy Marred by Political Compromises and U-Turns

The BJP-led government, which currently survives on the support of the Goa Forward Party (GFP) and independents – 14 BJP MLAs, 3 GFP MLAs and 3 independents in a house with the reduced strength of 36 post defections and deaths – could face a reversal of fortunes if it does poorly in the by-polls. The Congress has 14 MLAs, the NCP and MGP one each.

In a bid to steady its fractious political existence during Parrikar’s year-long battle with cancer, the saffron party induced two Congress MLAs to defect. They resigned their seats in October last year. This brought the Congress numbers down from 16 to 14. But two deaths in quick succession – Francis D’Souza and Parrikar – reduced the BJP to 12, making the Congress the single largest party again.

A few days after Parrikar’s death, the saffron party moved to steady its ship once more by splitting the MGP and inducting two of its MLAs into the BJP. The move has been challenged both before the speaker and the courts. But the strong-arm tactics has made its other ally, Goa Forward, jittery as well.

A defeat for the BJP in Panaji would benefit the opposition, but ironically also make way for Utpal Parrikar’s early entry into politics. Snubbed for a ticket, the young claimant to the Parrikar legacy had a hard time concealing his disappointment and bitterness before the ‘in-your-face’ cameras, sarcastically thanking Sawant for finally arriving at a decision.

Just as his father had faced so many hurdles, he had come up against his first one in politics, Utpal told the camera crews. Obviously this is not the last we’ve heard of the Parrikar legacy.