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Tuesday, May 24, 2022

In Goa, a season of defections

🔴 Coomi Kapoor writes: The Association for Democratic Reforms reckons that in the outgoing legislature’s five-year term, 67 per cent of the 40 members switched sides.

Written by Coomi Kapoor |
Updated: January 20, 2022 9:44:53 am
Goa Legislative Assembly

Affluent Goa with a very high literacy rate has long overtaken Haryana, where the term Aya Ram-Gaya Ram originated, as home of the most brazen political turncoats. The Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) reckons that in the outgoing legislature’s five-year term, 67 per cent of the 40 members switched sides. With another poll approaching, freeway political traffic is once again frenetic.

Goa’s Game of Thrones began the day election results were declared in March 2017. The Congress won 17 seats and the BJP only 13. But, despite the odds, in less than 48 hours, Manohar Parrikar resigned as defence minister and staked his claim as chief minister with the support of the two smaller parties, Goa Forward Party and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.

There are many theories about how the BJP turned the tables on Congress. The Congress’s Digvijaya Singh, who flew down from Delhi, was curiously laid back in handing over his list of MLAs to the governor, while the BJP’s Nitin Gadkari was quick on the draw. Whatever the rights and wrongs, the early bird certainly got the worm and the GFP, which was earlier at daggers drawn with the BJP, joined the government and its leader, Vijai Sardesai, was appointed deputy chief minister.

Ever since, through a series of wily manoeuvres, the BJP retained power, despite the tragic death of Parrikar and the party’s attempt to clip its alliance partners’ wings. The Goa government remained afloat because of a series of defections. The biggest setback for the Opposition was in 2019 when 10 MLAs from Congress and two from the MGP joined the ruling party. When elections were announced this month, Congress was down from 17 MLAs to two. With polls around the corner, however, a reverse trend has begun. Many politicians are now making a beeline for Congress, which has indicated that it will not take back defectors.

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There are two aspects to Goa’s defection games — legal and moral. The 10 Congress MLAs who crossed over to the BJP in 2019 claimed protection under the anti-defection act, which stipulates that if two-thirds of the legislators switch sides it is not a defection but a merger. But can two-thirds of legislators defecting in a lone legislature rather than at a national level escape the rigours of the defection law? The Goa bench of the Bombay High Court is yet to deliver a judgment on the Goa Speaker’s ruling. The Supreme Court did not direct the high court to dispose of the matter speedily and the issue is now infructuous.

The Goa defections expose the inadequacies of the 1985 constitutional amendment, known as the anti-defection law, which seeks to prevent groups of individuals from destabilising governments for dishonest and self-serving purposes. Political parties and MLAs have repeatedly bypassed and exploited the law since partisan assembly speakers shun the neutrality which is expected of the high office they hold.

The legal position apart, the ADR Goa coordinator Bhaskar Assoldekar dubs such behaviour “a clear reflection of the utter disrespect to the voters, smacking of greed and a lack of ethics.’’ Some, however, question whether Goa’s voters feel the same sense of betrayal by their elected representatives who switch parties, as does the rest of India. They point to the example of three defecting MLAs in the outgoing assembly, Vishwajit Rane, Subhash Shirodkar and Dayanand Sopte, who were re-elected in by-elections from their respective constituencies despite resigning from the Congress and contesting on a BJP ticket.

A disturbing political trend in India is the gradual emasculation of MLAs and MPs by their political parties, which allot tickets less on merit and more on perceived meekness and caste affiliations. Which is why some argue that MLAs with minds of their own are a refreshing change and act as a curb on an autocratic party high command culture.

Recently, a political columnist who covered the eastern UP election campaign was struck by the complete helplessness of the ruling party legislators in Ghazipur, since all powers for development work were entrusted to the district administration. The local legislator could not implement basic development works outside her own house, let alone the rest of the village. In contrast, some powerful Goan politicians, backed by business lobbies, believe they are larger than the party and political parties avoid crossing swords with them because of their winnability factor. Assoldekar feels that it is not a healthy trend for politicians to assume they are bigger than the party.

MLAs in Goa benefit from the fact that constituencies are small — on average, around 30,000 voters — and local bodies like panchayats wield much power and influence. Some constituencies were once regarded as practically family fiefdoms.

In the 2017 elections, nine political families fielded 16 candidates and each family gained one representative to the assembly, regardless of party affiliation. Family seats such as Benaulim associated with the Alemao family, Valpoi represented by the powerful Rane clan, or Taleigao, held alternatively by Atanasio Monserrate and his wife Jennifer, were once common in Goa. Reportedly, the BJP is currently in a dilemma over whether to declare Utpal Parrikar, son of the late chief minister on whose legacy the party is still seeking votes, or Atanasio Monserrate, as its candidate from Panjim.

One reason why Mamata Banerjee set her sights on Goa is that she assumed that she could easily pick up a neta or two with shifting loyalties capable of delivering a constituency. But Goa’s hardened political heavyweights are perhaps no longer invincible. Television journalist Pramod Acharya believes that “The disgust level over defections is high among voters and party workers and many former MLAs are getting a negative feedback from their constituencies.’’

He is probably right, the tide may be turning against defectors. Which explains why Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco, for instance, who resigned as a Congress MLA last month and joined the TMC, quit his new party on Sunday and is expected to attempt a ghar wapsi. Similarly the MGP candidate from Bicholim declined a BJP offer of the party ticket, though the constituency is considered a BJP stronghold.

This column first appeared in the print edition on January 20, 2022 under the title ‘The shifting sands’. The writer is consulting editor, The Indian Express

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