That Prime Minister Modi concentrated on attacking the Congress in his public rally in Goa on Thursday clearly indicates that the ruling party sees its major challenge in that state from its traditional rival more than from the newer options.
At least until the last week or two, the campaigns of major newer entrants, TMC and AAP, have been more energetic, costly, and high profile.
No wonder. The top leaders of both, West Bengal Chief Minster Mamata Bannerjee and Delhi Chief Minster Arvind Kejriwal, both evidently see Goa as a southern stepping stone towards national acceptance as a prime ministerial alternative.
In case AAP fares well in Punjab and Uttarakhand, in both of which it is giving the Congress a run for its money, it would still only establish itself as a party with a strong base in the north. Goa could add a prominent southern outpost to its profile.
Yet, Modi only referred to the new entrants into Goa’s electoral fray at the end of his speech at Mapusa on Thursday evening. During the course of his far more concentrated attack on the Congress, Modi even pilloried Nehru for having delayed the liberation of Goa from colonial rule for too long.
As for his own party, Modi highlighted development projects, including the prospective new international airport at Mopa in north Goa. Work on the airport, which is much larger than the current Dabolim airport, is nearing completion.
The prime minister emphasised Goa’s further potential as a tourist hub that could draw more tourists to India overall.
He also spoke of the major new connective bridge over the Mandovi river. Named Atal Setu for former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, it connects north Goa with Panjim and with south Goa beyond, on the main national highway along the country’s west coast.
Strong efforts by TMC and AAP
Though they might finally be no more than also-rans, both TMC and AAP have put in huge effort, and money. TMC is more likely to dent the Congress in Goa, for it presents itself as an alternative to that party—from which its founders once split. The word ‘Congress’ is still part of the party’s name.
As soon as TMC stridently entered the Goa fray in late summer, it brought some prominent Congress leaders into its fold. It even sent one of them, former chief minister Luizinho Faleiro, to the Rajya Sabha, and appointed him a vice-president of TMC. Faleiro was quite a catch, for he had been a general secretary of the Congress, and had been put in charge of north-eastern states by that party.
On the other hand, AAP could potentially make a dent in the vote bases of both Congress and BJP in Goa. Its showing (zero seats) in the 2017 assembly elections was not encouraging, even though activists mounted a campaign with a higher visibility than other campaigns that year.
Elvis Gomes, who was its chief ministerial nominee last time, is now the Congress candidate for the state capital, Panjim.
Instead, Kejriwal is banking on a caste-based vote this time. While presenting Amit Palekar as AAP’s chief ministerial candidate three months ago, Kejriwal explicitly stated that Palekar’s Bhandari caste comprises a quarter of the state’s population. He further announced that the party would have a deputy chief minister from the Christian community, if it formed the government.
It is not clear whether caste affiliation will play out the way Kejriwal hopes. Caste does play a role in Goa politics, but not as much as in some other states.
Nor is the state clearly polarised on grounds of religion. Indeed, Modi alluded glowingly to former deputy chief minister Francis Desouza in his speech. Desouza’s assertion some years ago that all Indians are Hindus had stirred a controversy.
North Goa leader Michael Lobo too has been a prominent BJP face since he joined the party, but has rejoined the Congress for these elections.
Apart from the two big players, it is quite possible that Goa’s local parties could fare better than the new entrants, even after far less expenditure or ubiquitous campaigns. The long-established Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the six-year old Goa Forward are prominent among local parties.
The latter has stitched a seat-sharing alliance with the Congress for these elections. MGP is relatively conservative, and seen as a Hindu party. It ruled the state in the early years after Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule, largely on the plank that Goa should be merged with Maharashtra. It could draw away potential BJP votes in some pockets.
Defections have become endemic
Many Goans ruefully complain that defections have become endemic to state politics. The fractured results of the last elections led to a major round of political moves. The result was that the Congress, which won the largest number of seats, 17 out of 40, was finally left with just two MLAs.
Many voters talk of their resentment against both major parties for how that played out. Tragically, however, it is Goa’s voters who laid the foundation for it. Allegations abound of voters accepting money and other allurements from one candidate or another.
A new entrant like TMC could have emphasised constancy to build an image of clean politics. But it has suffered as many, if not more, defections in the run-up to the elections than the older parties. Several of those who joined TMC amid high profile welcomes just a few months ago have now returned to the Congress or other parties.
Both AAP and Congress have made their candidates publicly swear to remain loyal, but some voters smirk.
Even amid such an atmosphere of fickle politics, many Goans were disappointed that Utpal Parrikar, son of the late Goan leader Manohar Parrikar, chose to contest as an independent after first seeking a BJP ticket.
Goans glowingly remember Manohar Parrikar, former chief minister and Union defence minister, as having wrought development with dynamism and honesty. So, within the party, Parrikar’s son could have posed a challenge to Pramod Sawant, the relatively young leader who succeeded Parrikar as chief minister three years ago.
The PM’s praise during his speech on Thursday indicated that Sawant would continue if the BJP won.
(David Devadas is the author of The Story of Kashmir and The Generation of Rage in Kashmir.)
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