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Goa politics hotting up ahead of polls as TMC, AAP join the fray

The ruling BJP and the main Opposition Congress remain principal contenders for the Goa Assembly elections, even as they try to get allies to fight the intense, multi-cornered battle

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR | Panaji |
Updated: December 9, 2021 6:35:35 pm
Mamata Banerjee at Betim last October. (Express Photo)

Known for its volatile, tumultuous political developments, Goa politics is hotting up as battle lines are being drawn by a slew of contenders for the Assembly elections that are barely two months away.

As Goa begins to see a fresh round of significant developments – leaders switching parties and alliances and alignments being formed afresh – the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC), the latest entrant in its electoral arena, arrived in the state as part of its bid to expand its national footprint.

While the BJP, which has been ruling the state for a decade, and the main Opposition Congress remain the principal contenders, they would also need allies to fight the polls, which they seem to be trying to bring into their respective folds.

The aggressive entry of the TMC into Goa’s packed electoral field has given the battle another dimension. The party has forged an alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), which has a traditional Hindu vote bank that might dent the BJP’s prospects in some constituencies in the upcoming polls.

The Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which had made an unimpressive political debut in the 2017 Goa elections, has again thrown its hat into the ring, keen on making an entry into the 40-member state Assembly.

In 2017, the Congress had emerged as the single largest party, winning 17 seats as against the BJP’s 13. The Congress had then however failed to swing into action and get allies to muster the simple majority figure of 21.

Steered by defence minister Manohar Parrikar, the BJP had then outmanoeuvred the Congress by cobbling together a ruling coalition with parties like the MGP and the Vijai Sardesai-led Goa Forward Party (GFP) and two independent MLAs.

Parrikar, who was then the BJP’s chief negotiator and strategist in Goa, led the coalition and rewarded his allies with ministerial berths. In fact, the MGP had supported the BJP-led coalition on the condition that Parrikar be named as the Chief Minister, which he became.

After his long battle with pancreatic cancer, Parrikar died in March 2019. The allies he brought on board supported the new BJP CM Pramod Sawant in his Asembly floor test, following which both Sardesai and senior MGP MLA Ramkrishna alias Sudin Dhavalikar were made Deputy CMs.

In July 2019, the BJP sprang a surprise, stunning both its allies and the Congress in one stroke. It managed to attract 10 Congress MLAs and 2 MGP legislators, calling it a “merger” of the legislative parties. Days later, the ministers from allies like the MGP, GFP and Independent MLA Rohan Khaunte were dropped from the Sawant government as the BJP got 27 MLAs of its own.

For the last two-and-a-half years, the MGP, the GFP and Khaunte have been occupying seats in the Opposition ranks in the Assembly and have repeatedly attacked the Sawant government over several issues.

The BJP government is now about to complete its term even as the petitions seeking the disqualification of 12 “defector” MLAs remain pending before the High Court.

Parrikar’s demise has, however, left a vacuum in the Goa BJP. Senior party leaders admit that the things Parrikar could handle at a personal level – whether placating allies or dousing fire within the party – will now have to be dealt with by the party itself.

The BJP recently inducted senior Congress MLA and ex-CM Ravi Naik and GFP MLA Jayesh Salgaonkar after they quit their parties. The party also brought into its fold an Independent Daji Salkar from Vasco, who had earlier narrowed its victory margin in Vasco-da-Gama in 2017, to keep him out of reach of the Opposition parties.

The ruling party is now bracing to deal with the task of distributing poll tickets among its old party candidates as well as “defectors”. Fifteen of the BJP’s 27 MLAs are Catholics, even as Sawant has already made it clear that it will not be possible to accommodate all sitting MLAs in the party’s list of candidates.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to arrive in Goa on December 19 – the day the state celebrates 60 years of liberation – which will kick off the party’s poll campaign.

Besides the anti-incumbency factor, the BJP has been reeling under a number of controversies. In 2019, the “Save Mollem” movement launched by citizens and environmentalists against three linear projects cutting through the Mollem forest brought Sawant under attack. His government’s handling of the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic also drew flak from various quarters. And, recently, a row erupted over the allegedly illegal construction of a bungalow in Old Goa that also drew a stern reminder from the Archbishop of Goa that permitting “obnoxious activities” would jeopardise Goa’s heritage.

The Congress, which is down to 3 MLAs, is gripped by desertion and infighting. Since the exodus of its legislators in 2019, it has lost two ex-CMs to the BJP and the TMC, respectively. The GFP recently announced that it will support the Congress in the 2022 polls, but it too lost an MLA to the BJP.

On 30 October, top Congress leader Rahul Gandhi visited Goa to launch the party’s election campaign. The party has a traditional voter base in Goa, but it is struggling to tackle factional feuds with its state president Girish Chodankar locked in an intra-party power struggle with senior leaders. In the pictures of Rahul Gandhi and Vijai Sardesai holding hands on the day the GFP announced its support to the Congress, Chodankar was conspicuous by his absence while Leader of Opposition Digambar Kamat was in Delhi for a meeting with Gandhi.

In a breather for the Congress, veteran leader and 11-time legislator Pratapsingh Rane Wednesday scotched speculation over his switch from the party to the BJP. The bigger question, however, remains if the octogenarian will contest the next election. The party also managed to buy peace with disenchanted MLA Alexio Reginaldo Laurenco by appointing him state working president just when his discussion with the AAP was underway.

The Goa Congress has been supporting various citizen-led movements and announced that it would scrap the three linear projects that would impact environment. It has also been backing citizens protesting against the allegedly illegal building in Old Goa since July.

The TMC announced its arrival by getting senior Congress leader Luizinho Faleiro on board. Tennis star Leander Paes, who lives in Assolna in South Goa, also joined the party during Mamata Banerjee’s visit to the state in October and has since been campaigning door-to-door.

A smiling image of Mamata adorns hundreds of hoardings put up across Goa. Besides a social media blitzkrieg driven by by tech-savvy young members of political strategist Prashant Kishor’s I-PAC, the party has also launched a massive ad campaign across print, digital and radio platforms. The party’s high-profile MPs, Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra, who is the state in-charge, have been stationed in Goa for the elections.

By forging an alliance with the MGP, the TMC has sought to shed its “outsider” tag. Mamata and other Trinamool leaders have been pointing to similarities between Goa and Bengal, highlighting that both the states are fond of “fish and football”. Its alliance talks with the GFP fell through, but the party dealt a blow to the latter by poaching its working president Kiran Kandolkar, a former BJP MLA, and his wife Kavita, whom the GFP was set to make its candidates from the Tivim and Aldona constituencies in North Goa. The TMC, however, still does not have its organisation in place in Goa, and has not even named its state office bearers so far.

The TMC’s spirited entry and campaigning remind many of the AAP’s foray ahead of the 2017 polls. After making waves, the AAP had then drawn a blank though. In the succeeding years, the party made inroads through local body polls, even winning a Zilla Panchayat seat. Its volunteers made themselves visible during the pandemic, distributing foodgrains to the needy. It has now roped in some prominent faces including Puti Gaonkar, Amit Palekar and Vishwajit K Rane, who had contested the last election on a BJP ticket.

Kickstarting his party’s campaign, Kejriwal has offered a number of sops to the people of Goa. These include free electricity up to 300 units per month, free teerth yatra, unemployment allowance for mining and tourism sector dependents, and Rs 1,000 per month for all women above 18.

Kejriwal has also pledged that his party would give Goa a CM candidate from the numerically strong Bhandari Samaj, which accounts for 61% of the state’s OBC population. According to a 2014 survey by the Goa State Commission for Backward Classes, OBCs constitute 27% of Goa’s population. Kejriwal remains the AAP’s mascot, but his party, however, continues to struggle with the perception of being an “outsider party”.

As Goa gears up for the early 2022 electoral battle, observers point out that the post-poll scene with new political equations and realignments may prove to be no less decisive than the pre-poll scenario in determining its outcome in the event of a hung verdict.

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