After defecting to the ruling BJP Wednesday, Congress veteran and former Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat, when asked about the breach of the loyalty pledge taken by party candidates before the state Assembly elections, said he has switched to the saffron party fold with “divine consent”.
“About the oath which I had taken before God, I have gone before God and the Goddess and said that this (joining BJP) is in my mind. What should I do? In Goa, we have a system of taking prasad. Then God said you go ahead, don’t worry,” Kamat told reporters in Panaji, as he walked out of the state BJP headquarters on Wednesday afternoon.
Along with Kamat, seven other Congress MLAs, including Michael Lobo, defected to the BJP, pulling the party’s tally in the 40-member Assembly down to just 3 now.
In the run-up to the February 14 Goa Assembly polls, the Congress, on January 22, took 36 of its election candidates to the Mahalaxmi temple in Panaji and the Holy Cross Shrine in Bambolim, while the 34 men in the group also went to the Hamza Shah Dargah in Betim, to pledge that if elected they would remain in the party through the term and not defect.
The grand old party, which has been in the Opposition in Goa since 2012, had made this move in view of the 2019 exodus – when 10 of its 15 MLAs had crossed over to the BJP overnight –as it sought to assure voters that such defections would not be repeated.
However, barely six months later, in July, the Congress had again found itself in the middle of a defection storm, when it accused Kamat and the then Leader of the Opposition (LoP) Michael Lobo of conspiring with the BJP to engineer the defection of at least eight of its 11 MLAs. The party also removed Lobo as the Congress Legislature Party (CLP) leader and filed petitions before the Assembly Speaker to seek the disqualification of the two senior leaders.
The All India Congress Committee (AICC) had then managed to defuse the crisis by sending party general seretary Mukul Wasnik to Goa. A week later, the Congress flew down its five MLAs to Chennai for a weekend “to avoid pressure tactics and threats.” The AICC’s Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao had said that the MLAs were in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress is part of the ruling DMK-led alliance, “voluntarily to avoid incessant attempts, continuous calls, pressure tactics and threats” made by the BJP. Two of these five Congress MLAs, Sankalp Amonkar and Rudolfo Fernandes, were among the eight who defected Wednesday.
Both Lobo and Kamat were part of the group that took the loyalty pledge back in January. “At the feet of Goddess Mahalaxmi, all 36 of us pledge that we will remain loyal to the Congress party that has given us tickets. We pledge that the elected candidates will remain with the party in all circumstances …,” the candidates said at the temple.
Following a similar pledge at the Bambolim Cross, the 34 men in the group offered a chaadar at the dargah. The pledge was widely publicised by the Congress to assure voters that this time its MLAs could be trusted not to switch sides. At the time, Kamat said, “We are very serious about this and will not allow any party to poach our MLAs. We are god-fearing people. We have full faith in the Almighty. Hence, today we have taken a pledge that we will not defect.”
The Congress candidates made the same declaration in an affidavit signed in the presence of top party leader Rahul Gandhi on February 4. The party’s then ally Goa Forward Party also signed a declaration of loyalty. All this drew derision from the BJP, which asked how the Congress expected voters to trust its candidates if it did not trust them.
On Wednesday, as the eight defectors joined the BJP after the Congress’s Legislature Party moved a resolution to merge with the BJP, they were reminded of the pledge they had taken with folded hands in places of worship. Lobo, who returned to the BJP following an eight-month stint with the Congress, said, “Circumstances were different when we took the oath.” His wife Delilah said, “We took the oath saying that we will stay with the Congress and keep BJP out of power. But they (BJP) are already in power.”
Mormugao MLA Sankalp Amonkar, who had defeated former BJP minister Milind Naik after making an “expose” about his alleged sex scandal last year, was welcomed with firecrackers in his constituency. He said, “It’s been six months since I won the election. I saw that people’s expectations could not be met since I was in Opposition. When I spoke to the people who supported me all along and we took this decision (to join BJP) unconditionally. I took the decision to join BJP for the development of my constituency. I have also gone to the temple and taken blessings of God.” He also said that he was hurt that despite serving the Congress for over two decades, the party made Lobo, a new entrant, the leader of the Legislature Party. “I am not the only one who took oath. Everyone has and everyone knows it but we took the decision in the interest of the constituency.”
“It’s been a hard decision to take,” said Nuvem MLA Aleixo Sequeira. “After giving it serious thought I came to the conclusion that I should join the BJP. I know with this decision I have hurt many of my voters, to them I say sorry for letting you down. I hope over a period of time they will forgive me and I hope I will fulfil the expectations of those voters who said I should join BJP. Some have called me to congratulate me and some have called to curse me. But I have to take it in my stride,” Sequeira told a news channel.
Saligao MLA Kedar Naik said, “We did take the oath to stay together if we form government. But today the situation is such that we won’t be able to carry out any work if we stay in the Congress. And that is why we decided that two-thirds of the Legislature Party has to be merged.”
Cumbhajua MLA Rajesh Phal Dessai, seen more than once at the BJP office over the last few months, said, “We had taken the oath but people of constituency said that I need to do something for them. We have to listen to the people who come to us. We have got more power now.”
At an event in Margao then, Rahul Gandhi had said, “That (pledge) function was a demonstration of intent. It does not mean we do not trust our candidates. It is a demonstration that, we feel, we have a group of candidates who have integrity and who are going to work to form a government.”
Rahul also defended the party’s stance to shut its doors to the MLAs who had defected in 2019, even those comfortably placed to win their seats. “The people of Goa said they don’t want defectors and we accepted that with all our heart … the decision about defectors is not wrong. It is 100 per cent right,” he said.
However, with fear of divine retribution failing to prevent another attempt at a mass defection of its MLAs to the ruling party in early July, the Congress had then despatched Wasnik to Goa for quelling the rebellion and resolving the crisis.
Wasnik, accompanied by Dinesh Gundu Rao and state unit president Amit Patkar, had met Lobo, Delilah, and MLAs Kedar Naik and Rajesh Faldessai. Except for Kamat, all other Congress MLAs had met Wasnik – first for a meeting of the Legislature Party, and then for one-on-one discussions. After the meetings, Lobo, who had been labelled a “traitor” by the Congress, reiterated that he was still in the party while Patkar said Lobo and Kamat had changed their stance because they failed to get eight MLAs to their side in order to dodge the anti-defection law. Both Kamat and Lobo had been with the BJP earlier too.
The Congress had then averted a disaster, but soon after Goa’s season of heavy downpours the dark clouds of defection again returned to engulf the party two months down the line.
On Wednesday, Dinesh Gundu Rao tweeted: “People of Goa voted for these MLAs as they were @INCIndia candidates. They had sworn in front of temples, church & Dargah that they will not defect to BJP. They have affidavits that they’ll always be with the Congress and took a pledge on the Constitution. Isn’t this the height of betrayal and shamelessness by @digambarkamat, @MichealLobo76 and the others?” He added, “If BJP thinks that by doing #OperationKhichad in #Goa they are going to get stronger, then they will be in for a surprise. People of India are witnessing their unholy & corrupt politics. Their Jar of sins in filling up. The people will fight back. We will fight back.”