Carrying On a Dubious Game in Goa?
Once again at the superficial level, Goa seems to be going back to having its politics dominated by the two big national parties. Both have leaders hopping across party lines and who seem well disposed to lobbies ranging from those advocating casinos to destructive strip mining, especially once they are in power. Neither of these parties seems to be able to go beyond conservative and divisive politics, to create a vision for the future for one of India's most affluent, best educated and out-migration oriented of states.
The Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have dominated Goa’s electoral politics for some decades now with the former beginning in the 1980s and the latter from the mid-1990s. The obvious result of the recently held assembly elections was that the Congress, contrary to all expectations fared better than the BJP with a tally of 17 and 13 respectively in the 40-seat House. And while the headlines were about the BJP rebounding quickly and unabashedly a number of important issues have been overlooked.
Depending on one's view point (or even bias) it is easy to justify one or the other side. The BJP’s snatching or grabbing of power despite winning only 13 seats points to the divided house that the Congress is. The latter's inability to decide on a leader led the BJP quickly and straight to the governor. It got a head start with the support of smaller parties post-elections and an invitation from the party-nominated Governor Mridula Sinha. Her act was and continues to be contentious to say the least
Congress as Opposition
The Congress has been an abysmal opposition for the past five years and more, in the state. It ruled Goa (for the entire 1980s, part of the 1990s, and half of the 2000s) with an amazing level of unconcern and with anti-people decisions and corruption scandals marking its long innings at the helm.
Once again this time, at the superficial level, Goa seems to be going back to having its politics dominated by the two big national parties. Both have leaders hopping across party lines and who seem well disposed to lobbies ranging from advocating casinos to destructive strip mining, especially once they are in power. Neither of these parties seems to be able to go beyond conservative and divisive politics, to create a vision for the future for one of India's most affluent, best educated and out-migration oriented of states.
A Lesson from Tiny Goa
If India has a lesson to learn from this tiny state, it is about the limitations of communal politics.
The March 11 results showed that after five years in power and after making countless promises, the BJP failed to hold on to its electorate. The voters rejected the chief minister and two-thirds of his cabinet and plans to create a Hindu vote bank came unstuck. The minority Catholic community that till the 1920s made up the majority in Goa continues to vote across party lines, even if many of its members are suspicious of the BJP’s aims.
The Congress was unable to cash in, despite an attempt to bring in new faces that were less discredited by the politics of the past. The role played by the smaller parties, in particular, showed signs of promise, but only at one stage and this changed fast. They managed to cut across religious divides, make a strong point against misrule and corruption, and articulate citizens' anger about the manner in which both the big two parties had ruled.
But this short-lived trend was quickly brought to a close, with the BJP mopping up all the non-Congress legislators (and one ambitious Congressman too) once it was clear that Sinha's decision would give the outgoing ruling party a head start again.
Without doubt, there were other factors that led to the rise of the regional local players. Sections of the media obliquely referred to highlight allegations that the Goa Forward, which won three crucial seats, might have been backed by a section of Goa's influential mine owners. The party won three crucial seats. The Maharasthrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP)'s losses and wins, could be seen as having more to do with settling local, individual scores than ideology or principles. The lone Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) seat reflects the use of party labels by leaders who control their own fiefdoms and there are quite a few of these still in Goa's politics.
The Past Explains the Present
To understand electoral figures, one probably has to look at Goa's past. Much can be explained by old mistrusts, hurts and bitterness that go back to colonial times. Colonial rule lasted in Goa for 450 years, much of it little understood by the outside world.
Behind the “national” labels are a whole lot of local issues. This holds true from the time the Congress was trounced in 1963, after packing its candidates’ list with mostly upper castes and freedom fighters, to the time it managed to build itself up in the late 1970s on the ruins of the declining Catholic-backed United Goans Party. For its part, the BJP brokered a deal via the late Pramod Mahajan in 1994 with the MGP. That helped the BJP to make inroads into Goa at the cost of the MGP, which were later consolidated through the treachery within the Congress, supported not without glee by the BJP.
In 2017, the mood in Goa was quite distinct from 2012 when BJP leader Manohar Parrikar had managed to convert an anti-Congress and anti-corruption wave into a mandate for the BJP.
This time around, however, that same mood could not be repeated. Parrikar, known for his self-confidence, administrative abilities and friendly relations with the media, moved away from Goa mid-term to become Defence Minister in New Delhi. He left behind a party of political pygmies. His successor Laxmikant Parsekar offered an uninspiring administration and the BJP had also accumulated more enemies than it realised.
This time, the BJP was unable to repeat the element of surprise it had five years earlier. Half a decade back, a veteran traditional fishers’ leader Matanhy Saldanha, who hailed from a Catholic landed family, had crossed over to the BJP and helped it to make deep inroads into Goa's only Catholic-majority taluka of Salcete. Though the minority community did not vote for the BJP directly, it (sometimes unwittingly) hugely supported Independents who consistently backed the BJP on getting elected.
This time round, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sought to imitate the BJP's strategy by naming former senior bureaucrat and almost a Arvind Kejriwal-parallel in Goa, Elvis Gomes, as their chief ministerial candidate. Though a risky gambit, this had the potential to kill many birds in one stone.
After the Congress raj of the 1980s (and even then), the chief minister’s post has largely eluded Catholics, in part because of the low-intensity communal polarisation here. A Catholic chief minister survived only for short stints, if at all. Second, given the caste dynamics among the Catholics, AAP’s decision also had the potential to mop up the numbers, including that of the influential Salcete Chardo community, and lure them away from the BJP, to which some of this support had gone in the past time. (Much of the early 20th and 19th century Goan history was a contestation for power between Catholics of Brahmin origin and those of Chardo origin, both among the two most dominant caste groups here.)
AAP failed to win a single seat, which surprised some. It held a tasteful Konkani-music fuelled election campaign, and party leader Kejriwal as well as the pollsters expected it to do well. But it got caught between the traditional rivalries of Goan politics, and was not seen as a major contender by most, two factors which might have dissuaded many from wasting a vote. Besides, the ability of parties like the Goa Forward to absorb some of the “dissent” vote also cut into AAP's tally. Goa, like other Indian states, clearly demonstrates that the first-past-the-post method brings in its own distortion in the results.
Symbiotic Relationship with Media
The BJP's ascent to power has another element to it, which needs looking at. Its ability to influence the media, and build symbiotic relationships with it is worth noting. Television studios and print journalists have long over-rated the potential of the BJP. Often, this turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it influences reality as much as "depicts" it. More than that, in the tightly contested game of government formation in the 40-seat tiny Goa assembly, clearly the party which has the bulk of the media supporting it has a clear start even after winning just 13 seats!
This time too, the media (as well as the opinion polls) anticipated the BJP’s emergence as the single-largest party. When it turned out otherwise, the narrative was still controlled by the fourth estate. First, the divided Congress was faulted for "delaying" too long before staking its claim, as if government formation was a kind of race to Dona Paula. This is home to the sprawling 80-acre gubernatorial Cabo Raj Bhavan, built in the 16th century. Once intended to be a fort that regulated entry into the Mandovi and Zuari, where the two important Goan Rivers meet the Arabian Sea, it was occupied in turn as a monastery and by the British occupying forces during the Napoleaonic wars. Its current incumbent, since August 2014, is former BJP national executive member and short story writer Mridula Sinha of Bihar.
Significant sections of the media (mainstream and social) have, over the years, been made partisans in the game of the Congress and the BJP. While others debate the “paid news” phenomenon, where editorial columns are bought over, here the media is also politically owned, or in a few cases controlled by blandishments which could range from subsidies and loans to buy computers and cameras, to trips abroad supposedly meant to study garbage issues. In 2012, figures were being mentioned locally over what supposedly was the price for a mainstream newspaper to deliver an unlikely vote-bank to one party, through persistent manipulation of reportage and editorial stances.
If the traditional print media has also been mine owner-controlled in the past (with a break in the spell in recent times), the new audio-visual media is once again dominated by this very sector. This makes for a convenient convergence of commercial interest, politics and traditional privilege by way of caste. After influencing a set of Marathi newspaper reporters and editors, the BJP set up its own paper Gova Doot (Goa Messenger) some years ago. It might have not cut much ice with the readers, but has managed to influence the debate in some ways. The bias towards building a right-wing, conservative media is clear.
Various theories were floated to explain the strange twist that led to the BJP ascent to power in Goa. These ranged from claims that it was the smaller parties which demanded the return of Parrikar to Goa, to sleepless nights spent by national level BJP politicians (some of whom incidentally face allegations of having subverted green laws, misrepresented facts and overruled traditional fishermen to push through a project in the Mormugao port that would directly benefit the Adani and Jindal groups).
But a more-realistic “how to win an election” in Goa would make for a colourful list. On it would be having New Delhi and the Governor on your side, to finding the right Mir Jafars from among your rivals, getting support from the media, keeping tight controls on election rolls, and even dividing the opposition by strategically placing candidates who could steal away some votes.
The BJP's 2012 strategy of defeating the Congress through “Independents” did not work effectively this time. But the luring over of the three-member Goa Forward party made some quarters believe that there was at least some orchestration involved even before the results. There were also serious issues raised about election authorities allowing postal ballots to be received for over a month, and another case of some 700+ army men lining up to vote in one of Goa's small village constituencies where results can be razor thin.
Goa can be a complex reality. The one man who has understood it well, and reaped the returns is Manohar Parrikar. He has dominated much of Goa's politics in the 1990s and 2000s, either as king or king-maker. Even when in opposition, he managed to raise exactly those issues that the citizen is most perturbed about. But his stands on contentious issues ranging from the "Rs 35,000 crore" mining scam (which he highlighted while in opposition) or the dubious “offshore” casinos brought in by stealth by the earlier Congress governments, has earned him much flak and the criticism of being a "U-turn expert".
For its part, the rest of the country continues to understand Goa in cliches. One of the worst of these recently represented Goa as a huge mining dug-out crater (which are very much present away from the tourist gaze in interior Goa) and a bikini-clad young lady looking at it intently from a short distance uphill!
Goa itsef also has a shortfall of an understanding of its own issues. Activism and concern has grown significantly in recent years. More so from the mid-1980s when then chief minister Pratapsing Rane could dismiss protests against unbridled mass tourism as something "seven or eight" persons were involved in. (Pratapsing's son Vishwajeet is now making news and undertaking activism of a different sort -- for political reasons. The family hails from a clan of local satraps claiming a Rajput heritage which long dominated parts of interior Goa, with alternating feuds and friendships with the former Portuguese rulers. Rane senior started off as an MGP minister, became a Congress chief minister, and then sided with the BJP while it was in power. His son recently blamed the central Congress leadership and quit his seat, thus helping the BJP.
This lack of understanding, together with a manipulation of issues, means that citizens' campaigns can often be made use of for narrow electoral ends. This was the case of the Konkan Railway, which helped to get Congress politicians like Wilfred de Souza to power in the 1990s. But, otherwise, the citizens' anger is directed against the migrant, or otherwise made use of.
Goa has many crucial issues facing it, mainly revolving around how it protects nature's bounty in a highly eco-sensitive region, what fruits of 'development' go to its people who need it the most, fighting poverty or anemia and women's disempowerment in what is supposedly 'rich' state, how it adjusts with the reality of heavy out- and in-migration, how to create a genuine multicultural and open society. In short, and to keep up with the cliche, how different segments of its people can live and work, sing and dance, study and play together.
But the lack of an effective Opposition for years together is a frightening prospect, as is the trend for politicians to change parties at the drop of a hat, avoiding long-term accountability. The ease with which the Goan opinion makers whether in politics or the media, keep dividing the electorate with clockwork regularity (merger with Maharashtra and soft communalism in the 1960s, language in the next few decades, mega projects and the handing over lands to industrial and other interest) is worrying.
Yet conservative politics based on identity and community are increasingly coming a cropper in Goa. Goa Forward, the party which is seen as having made all the difference to the end result, swore by Goem-Goemkar-Goenkarponn (Goa-Goans-Goanity), only to quickly change tracks when justifying its move to back the BJP, a party it was fiercely critical of weeks earlier.
Tokenism for Catholics
Over the years, five decades of low-intensity communally polarised politics have had its impact. Hindu voters showed signs of disillusionment with promises that count for little. For their part, Catholics appear angry at being given tokenism and figureheads for leaders for long. Some one pointed out online that Catholics who form a quarter of the population had won 17 out of 40 seats, which wasn't numerically bad for a minority. But this hides the reality; even assuming those who share a religion form a community, the impact has hit home in other ways. A new 'leadership' has been foisted on the community, since the 1980s but increasingly of late, where the most controversial of leaders are chosen and propped up as 'Catholic' leaders. In some cases, it is parties like the BJP or the Congress which has made this choice, leaving the wider community at a loss over how to respond, lurching between oppositional politics or just settling for some long pending demand as the price of support.
Clearly, the current trends in electoral politics are unlikely to solve the issues of the people. Whether it is the infrastructure-deprived Goan of the hinterland who lack the wherewithal to compete in the 21st century or is not enough equipped to migrate. Or the Goan from the coast, often feeling disempowered due to his minority religious status. Or the migrant who is both made the scapegoat and excluded from civic life, while sought to be made use of at election time by politicians of all stripes.
Goa remains an uneasy patchwork quilt of castes and religious divides. The economically and culturally dominant Saraswat Brahmin has been able to fight the isolation of the 1960s that was fuelled for sometime by MGP politics, in part through the strategies of Manohar Parrikar. The intermediary castes and others at the higher end joined in attempts to form and lead a 'Bahujan Samaj' mega alliance earlier, but now have settled for another form of alliances, including, at times, a milder version of Hindutva. Catholics too have their own caste divides, intense earlier, but sometimes kept on the backburner as a response to communal politics. What's to be seen is if the next generation acts differently.
"[T]his is the BJP's political mafia raj at work," retired Principal Prabhakar Timble commented. He was the president of the Goa Forward till the sudden trend took it into the BJP camp, and he promptly resigned. When the Congress was dominating local politics, similar anger was targeted against it. Local parties have not been able to make a dent for another understandable set of reasons.
Timble, like some other key players today, was a citizens' activist in the 1980s, before becoming a respected college principal. Like him, some others thrown up by the student social ferment of the 1980s also play a crucial role in State politics, in some cases, controversial too. Like in most things Goan, it's too early to say who shifts the trends of Goan politics in which direction. Its tracks on the sands have sometimes been decided by fate -- as by the untimely death of the Number Two man in the earlier Parrikar cabinet, ex-activist Matanhy Saldanha who died weeks after taking over office in 2012, or the severe illness of another talented former student leader journalist-editor-cartoonist Vishnu Wagh who is in hospital for months now has meant he was unable to contest his seat, lost by his brother.
Goa might just be getting fed up of the old divisive politics, and manage to push for what it needs. On the other hand, the manipulative skills of the many sides involved remind one of the old Konkani saying: "Podd'lear suddha naak voir!" (You may fall, but your nose always points upwards-- a reference to the perennial ability to reinvent oneself and carry on with the dubious game!)
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