IT MUST have been one of those muggy Goan afternoons when the ambitious son of a smalltown grocer, fresh from his stint at IIT-Bombay, decided to scour a marketplace for an opportunity to manufacture and sell jute sacks. He was a trained metallurgist but that didn’t matter — in just three months, he made good the loan he took from his mother.
This unobvious and independent style, backed by swift decision-making, would soon define the political journey of Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar — beginning with Subhash Velingkar, his mentor and RSS guru, handpicking him as the future face of the BJP in Goa.
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In those days, though, Parrikar had set his mind on establishing his business — he had set up a hydraulics factory with a Muslim partner — and was reluctant to take the political plunge. Three decades later, his political legacy speaks for itself: Chief Minister of Goa on four occasions and the first Goan to serve as Defence Minister of India.
But if the Parrikar before 2012 was fully engaged with the daily concerns of the state, he was later a man weighed down — mainly by the mining ban, pushed by a strong migrant lobby that started investing in casinos and projects across pristine forest and agriculture land. In the last year-and-a-half, he was reluctant to delegate administrative affairs to ministerial colleagues and ran the state with a select group of administrators.
Even then, with all the contradictions, the man with a simple lifestyle, who always took the blessings of his mother and his favourite deity Mahalakshmi, who was sometimes seen eating ‘ros’ (chicken gravy) omelettes off the street, who could remember the name and village of every voter, will always remain the state’s most popular political export.
In Delhi, where he was Defence Minister from 2014 to 2017, he famously announced that he would break the nexus between middlemen and arms agents. He was also at the helm when the Army conducted the cross-border surgical strike of 2016. And when the controversial Rafale fighter jet deal was being negotiated by the NDA government.
Known for his modest sartorial style, Parrikar will also go down as the only minister who chose 13, his birth date, as his lucky number — even flaunting it on his vehicle’s number plates. Such is the irony, though, that his government had the strength of 13 BJP MLAs in the Cabinet in 2000 when he first became chief minister. And until his death Sunday — he was diagnosed last year with a pancreatic ailment — he was the 13th man from the BJP in the coalition alliance.
But much before he became a popular name in Delhi’s political circles, Parrikar, the blue-eyed lad of New Goa English High School, was a Sangh boy, following instructions “like an obedient student” and given the task to expand its reach in Goa. His lobbying skills to get most tourist-friendly festivals to Goa, be it IFFI or Serendipity also earned him fans.
In 2000, when he first became the chief minister of a coalition government, heralding the BJP inside the assembly complex for the first time, people recall the dramatic convoy, with Parrikar sitting next to the driver as the car drove to the Adil Shah Palace, then the state secretariat, to stake claim. Not many knew at the time that the former RSS pracharak had a decade’s efforts behind that journey.
Former Union law minister and Congress leader Ramakant Khalap recalls Parrikar’s induction to BJP, slowly teaming up with Maharashtra leaders Gopinath Munde and Pramod Mahajan. The trio lost no time in looking for allies with “Hindutva sentiments in a cosmopolitan Goa”. “Unknown to us, the BJP had already infiltrated our party… we knew that only one man could pull off that coup and it was Parrikar,” recalls Khalap of the next general election in 1994.
It’s to his charismatic appeal and credit that the Church, which supported his leadership, and the Qureshi community, which looked up to him to resolve the beef ban, never felt it important to ponder the journey he took years ago to Ayodhya for the Babri Masjid demolition as an RSS karyakarta.
Months before his death, ten clerics reached the BJP headquarters to read the Koran for him and the state’s archbishop Filipe Neri Ferao appealed to the Catholic community to pray for him. Such was his pull, till the end, as one of the few BJP leaders known to have secured a secular image.
In the last few months, whether it was announcing the Budget, or inspecting a bridge, or attending a voting booth meet, Parrikar was visibly weak and ferried in a wheelchair by his doctor. But he continued to mark his presence, routinely releasing photographs of him chairing Cabinet meetings from his residence. So strategic were his appearances and his tweets that they never failed to provoke the Opposition, which continued to hold public meets demanding his resignation.
In January, during the launch of the Atal Setu bridge, the Parrikar of old was on show once again. “How is the Josh?” he asked cheekily, the surgical strikes figuring in most of his public conversations.
Back in the villages of Parra, known for its watermelons, there’s a popular story of a father and son that will now be repeated. While the father allowed the local boys to chew on the melons and spit the seeds around, the son found it a waste of good produce. He forced the father to stop and send the melons for export.
In 2017, as Defence Minister, while speaking about being lonely in New Delhi, Parrikar is believed to have recalled this story. “Do you know why the father allowed us those melons even as he made losses?” he asked. The seeds remained at home, and this was the old man’s way of ensuring the legacy of Parra’s melons, he recalled. But the son’s greed pushed the seeds away, he said, with the crop eclipsed by rivals through the years. “Some calculations are never understood, till it is too late. Some risks need to be taken for larger profits,” he is believed to have said. With the boy from Parra now gone, the larger question remains: Who will take his place?