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Explained: Political significance of Bhandari community in Goa polls

Goa’s political parties have always tried to woo the numerically strong Bhandaris, with some seeking to champion reservation for the community.

Written by MAYURA JANWALKAR , Edited by Explained Desk | Panaji |
Updated: January 24, 2022 10:57:52 am
Aam Aadmi Party CM candidate for Goa Assembly polls Amit Palekar during his election campaign | Twitter/@AmitPalekar10

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has named a 45-year-old political debutant Amit Palekar as its Chief Ministerial candidate in the 14 February Goa Assembly elections. A lawyer-turned-politician, Palekar belongs to the Bhandari community, which is Goa’s largest caste group constituting a significant percentage of its Hindu population. His selection is in keeping with the AAP’s earlier announcement that its CM nominee for the Goa polls will be from the Bhanadari community. Declaring Palekar as the AAP’s CM face on 19 January, AAP supremo and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal had said his party was not resorting to caste politics but was “correcting” the “injustice” the Bhandari community had long suffered at the hands of Goa’s major parties who, he added, never picked a CM from the community despite its numerical strength.

Who are the Bhandaris?

The Bhandari community’s traditional occupation was toddy-tapping and distilling, farm tilling and working in orchards. It is placed in the Other Backward Class (OBC) category in Goa. The community is spread across Goa and Maharashtra’s Konkan belt including parts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg.

How much of Goa’s population do they account for?

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Gomantak Bhandari Samaj (GBS) president Ashok Naik said there has been no survey of the actual population of the Bhandari community in Goa. But he contests the figures recorded by the Goa government’s Social Welfare Department. In written reply to a question raised in the Goa Assembly in October 2021, Social Welfare Minister Milind Naik had said that a survey of OBCs was conducted in 2014 by the Goa State Commission for Backward Classes. “As per the survey report, the population of OBC was 3,58,517 which was 27% of the total population. As per this survey, the total number of Bhandari community is 2,19,052 which constitute 61.10 % among OBC.”

But Naik says that the Bhandaris account for not only majority of the OBCs but also majority of the Hindu population in the state.

According to the 2011 Census, the population of Goa was 14.59 lakh of which 66.08 per cent were Hindus, 25.10 per cent were Christians, 3.66 per cent were Muslims, and the remaining were from other religions.

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“There has never been a proper survey of the population of Bhandaris. The government says it is about 2 lakh which is not correct. Estimates suggest that at present the number should be about 5.29 lakh which would make up for at least 30 per cent of the state’s population,” said Naik.

Has the Bhandari Samaj been neglected by political parties?

Goa’s political parties have always tried to woo the numerically strong Bhandaris, with some seeking to champion reservation for the community. The GBS chief had earlier said that the Bhandari Samaj would back the party that gives maximum election tickets to candidates from the community.

While the community has had representation in the state Assembly, there has so far been only one CM in Goa from the community, Ravi Naik, who was formerly with the Congress and is now with the BJP. The outgoing 40-member state Assembly has four MLAs from the Bhandari community.

Ashok Naik said with education and inclusion in the OBC category, Bhandaris progressed in the post-liberation Goa with many community members excelling in higher education and assuming important offices. “But if 5 per cent of our community is possibly rich, 95 per cent is still poor. They still struggle to make ends meet,” he said.

Will declaring a CM candidate from the Bhandari community give the AAP an edge in the multi-cornered Goa polls?

“For the first time in 60 years a party has come to us and said that they will give us a CM from the Bhandari community. Whether they win or not is another story but they have tapped our pulse and recognised that our community needs to be given its due,” said Ashok Naik. While he said the community leaders would rally around the AAP’s CM nominee, the Bhandari population in the St Cruz constituency is not high, from where Palekar is going to make his electoral debut.

Political observers say even if the GBS throws its weight behind Palekar, the community at large may not be on the same page. They say over the last 20 years the Bhandari community has been closely associated with the BJP.

However, traditionally votes sought on the basis of religion or caste have not gone down well with the Goan electorate. Senior journalist and author Sandesh Prabhudesai, whose book Ajeeb Goa’s Gajab Politics was recently released, said the first instance of wooing Goa voters on the basis of caste took place in 1972 but it backfired. “At that time the literacy was about 30 per cent. (Former CM) Bhausaheb (Dayanand) Bandodkar had faced the first rebellion,” Prabhudesai said. He said the daily Gomantak was then very influential in Goa and was the only Marathi language newspaper reaching Hindu homes at the time. K B Naik, a Bhandari leader, with the daily’s support, had tried to make electoral gains by playing the caste card, he said. “In the two previous elections Bhausaheb’s Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party won 16 seats but in the 1972 election it won 18. Since then, caste politics has not worked in Goa,” he added.

Academicians say the candidates who win from various Goa constituencies generally represent their demographic. For instance, a Christian candidate may win in a constituency with a significant Christian population or a Bhandari candidate may win in seats with higher percentage of Bhandari voters but votes would not be sought on those grounds, they say.

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