Mumbai: Pramod Sawant was elected leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) legislature party in Goa Monday and will take his oath as chief minister for the second time.
Just a little over a week ago, when counting of votes for the Goa assembly polls was underway on 10 March, the 48-year-old was a worried man. In the first two rounds, he was trailing behind the Congress candidate, Dharmesh Saglani.
Sawant, a two-term MLA from Sanquelim, did pick up the lead in the third round, but the margin remained precariously slim at around 600 votes, till the final round when the incumbent CM was eventually declared victorious. Relief and jubilation were apparent on his face as he walked out of the counting centre in a crisp, full-sleeve formal shirt and trousers, his access lanyard hanging around his neck.
Having won his first two elections by a huge margin of 6,918 votes in 2012, and a comfortable one of 2,131 in 2017, he barely managed to scrape through this time. However, the BJP leader was in high spirits.
“The winning margin may be low, but the credit for my win entirely goes to my karyakartas, who worked for me even when I wasn’t there in my constituency,” a gushing Sawant told reporters before stopping to hug Atanasio Monserrate — the BJP’s winning MLA from Panaji — who he had brought in from the Congress in 2019.
For “accidental CM” Sawant, who took over the reins of Goa in 2019 amid much doubt and trepidation over his political and administrative proficiency, and constant comparisons to his predecessor late Manohar Parrikar, the bigger picture is one of more than just vindication.
Under his leadership, the BJP has won 20 of a total 40 seats in its first assembly election fought without party stalwart Parrikar’s leadership. Moreover, three Independents and two MLAs of the regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) have submitted letters of support to help the BJP form government in the state.
The party’s best performance was in 2012, when it had won 21 seats in a campaign led by Parrikar, but in a pre-poll alliance with the MGP.
Posing for paparazzi inside the BJP office in Panaji on results day, the party’s poll in-charge for Goa Devendra Fadnavis had wrapped a gargantuan garland around Sawant and BJP state president Sadanand Shet Tanavade. It was “good coordination” between the two that delivered the BJP its second-best victory in Goa till date, Fadnavis told reporters in a press conference that evening.
Multiple Goa BJP leaders told ThePrint that while the party’s election success was a joint effort, Sawant’s placid leadership helped. They said that amid talks of there being a strong anti-incumbency sentiment, Sawant’s confident body language and optimism of being able to form the government on the party’s own strength boosted ground-level party workers.
“He campaigned for every candidate in every constituency though it meant neglecting his own constituency. In Goa, it is said, a candidate’s feet have to touch every household in the constituency, failing which you might have to hold your head in your hands,” Vinay Tendulkar, BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP from Goa, told ThePrint.
“The CM could not campaign door-to-door in his own constituency, he held corner meetings instead and gave his time to BJP’s other candidates. We fought without any allies and in some constituencies bloomed a lotus for the first time in history,” he added.
The ‘accidental’ CM
Sawant, who was elected as the Goa assembly Speaker in 2017, was elevated to the CM’s chair in March 2019 amid much drama following then CM Parrikar’s death, and several claimants to the post.
Many voiced doubts about whether the quiet and low-key Sawant will be able to fill the giant Parrikar-shaped hole, and keep the party and government intact at a time when the BJP did not have the strength in the assembly to stand on its own, and was heavily dependent on its regional allies MGP and Goa Forward Party (GFP).
In January, Sawant had told ThePrint: “Everyone started to compare me with Manohar Parrikar. It is not possible to compare with him. But we are still continuing the legacy of Manohar Parrikar.”
What made Sawant, who is an Ayurvedic doctor, the most popular choice within the BJP at the time was that he is a thoroughbred Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) man and a home-grown BJP product, much like Parrikar. His wife, Sulakshana Sawant, is also a BJP worker.
In the two years that he served as CM, the BJP bolstered its position in the government by bringing many MLAs from the MGP and Congress into the party fold within four months of Sawant taking charge. Party sources said that Sawant, who is known to spend a lot of his time with karyakartas and immerses himself in party work as much as in government affairs, had a key role to play in engineering the defections.
The “accidental CM” tag, however, stuck as the government faced a strong backlash on its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, especially during the second wave. Disapproval of Sawant’s methods even came from within the party. He had a very public power struggle with state Health Minister Vishwaji Rane, a forever CM aspirant.
A BJP leader who did not wish to be named told ThePrint that Sawant ensured he did not “fan such tussles” with his comments.
“Whether with Vishwajit Rane or with Michael Lobo, the party’s core committee in the state would discuss these issues and advise the CM on how to handle them,” the leader added.
Closer to the Goa state poll, Lobo, a former minister in the Sawant government, had been making public comments about how the party has now become “commercial” and has forgotten Parrikar’s values. He ultimately left the party and joined Congress.
In 2019, Sawant came under fire from the opposition for allegedly buying two large land parcels in the Dodamarg taluka of Maharashtra’s Sindhudurg district. Opposition leaders alleged that Sawant purchased the land speculating a real estate boom, as the villages were demanding that they be merged with Goa.
In 2021, he was caught in a sticky spot when former Goa governor Satya Pal Malik (now the Meghayala governor) in an interview to India TV alleged widespread corruption in the Sawant-led Goa government.
The same year, he courted another controversy with his comment on an alleged gang rape of two minor girls. Sawant had said parents need to introspect on why their minor children were out on the beach alone all night. He later said that his comment was taken out of context and his response came “as a head of a responsible government and the father of a 14-year-old daughter”.
CM Sawant’s contentious Bhoomiputra Bill, which sought to regularise houses of “sons of the soil” also drew flak as political observers called it a means to pander to migrants rather than natives, with the definition of ‘bhoomiputra’ being anyone who has been living in Goa for more than three decades.
A BJP leader who worked closely with Sawant this election told ThePrint that controversies aside, Sawant did a lot of work on road infrastructure development in Goa during his term.
“Traveling from North Goa to South Goa is now much easier. The development of the new airport at Mopa has gathered pace,” he further said.
“Pramod Sawant is basically a simple man. He is not very aggressive. He keeps to his work, he is disciplined. But he is more of an administrative face. He is not a strong political face. That is definitely something that he will have to work on,” the leader added.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)