Panaji: On 22 January, standing before the deity at Goa’s Mahalaxmi temple, candidates of the Congress party for the upcoming 14 February assembly election, took a pledge in Konkani, repeating after a priest: “At the foot of goddess Mahalaxmi, we pledge that we will remain loyal to the Congress party that has chosen us as candidates.”
In the presence of All India Congress Committee leaders P. Chidambaram and Dinesh Gundu Rao, the 36 Congress candidates repeated the pledge at the Holy Cross Shrine in Bambolim and the Hamzah Shah Dargah.
The histrionics made headlines, but the party’s trepidations that made them stage the charade were hardly surprising.
After all, defections have almost been a local tradition in Goa, and in the past five years, the Congress has been stung hard by them, with its tally in the 40-member assembly being reduced to two in 2022 from 17 in 2017.
For years, individual politicians have cultivated their Goa’s constituencies as their fiefdoms, and as a byproduct of that, political parties have been luring candidates, piggybacking on their potential winnability.
The upcoming assembly elections are no different, with over 15 MLAs from Goa’s 40-member assembly resigning and changing political affiliations in the run-up to the polls.
Other than the obvious reason of Goa being a very small state (just 3,702 square kilometres), the reasons for elections being dominated by individual leaders more than parties lies in the muddled political history of the coastal state.
Small constituencies, local fiefdoms
On the face of it, most senior political leaders in Goa attribute the existence of individual-led political fiefdoms to the coastal state’s size and the small assembly constituencies.
Goa had a population of 14.85 lakh according to the 2011 Census, approximately one-tenth that of Mumbai and Delhi. Constituencies in Goa each have about 25,000 to 30,000 electors. This, leaders from across parties contesting the Goa elections say, has made it possible for politicians to establish a direct connect with voters over the years.
For example, Soma Majhi, who lives in the Poriem constituency’s Keri village, had been voting for Congress’ Pratapsingh Rane ever since he got voting rights. His family has been doing the same.
“It’s not about voting for the Congress for us. It is about voting for Pratapsingh Rane. We don’t care which party he is with. If he doesn’t contest, we will vote for whoever he tells us to,” Majhi said, a day before the six-time CM decided to pull out of the electoral race.
The neighbouring Valpoi constituency has been represented by Rane’s son Vishwajit, who was earlier with the Congress. In 2017, when Vishwajit shifted to the Bharatiya Janata Party, so did his voters.
In Benaulim, Churchill Alemao has been elected as MLA several times, irrespective of which party he has been with, while capital Panaji was loyal to the BJP’s Manohar Parrikar as long as he lived.
However, the bypoll after Parrikar’s death in 2019 showed that the voters were faithful to him, and not necessarily the BJP, when Atanasio ‘Babush’ Monserrate won for the Congress. The BJP knew if it had to retain Panaji and its neighbouring constituencies, it had to net Monserrate, which it did.
While filing his nomination, Monserrate told reporters, “I used to always say, after Parrikar it’s me,” in a matter-of-fact tone, almost as if Panaji was a property that Parrikar and Monserrate had called dibs on.
Also read: Rodeo rider returns to first love farming: Why Congress’ Pratapsingh Rane won’t fight Goa polls
History of political instability
Personality based politics became more dominant in Goa due to the political instability in the state in the years after it attained statehood in 1987, with individual leaders using political machinations to gain power.
Political outfits could not create much goodwill among voters in their own names during this period as they would back the ambitions of these individual leaders to topple existing governments and come to power on the back of personalities.
For instance in 1990, Luis Prato Barbosa toppled Congress’ Pratapsingh Rane government by tying up with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party under the banner of the Progressive Democratic Front. The Barbosa government fell within eight months.
Similarly, the Luizinho Faleiro-led Congress government, which had come to power with a rare majority of 21 seats in the 40-member assembly in 1999, was toppled within five months.
Fellow Congress leader Francisco Sardinha, who had chief ministerial ambitions, broke away from the Congress with 10 other MLAs and joined hands with the BJP to form a government with him at the helm.
A good measure for just how unstable Goa’s governments have been is that in just over 34 years since Goa became a state, it has had 20 chief ministers, with a few leaders having had more than one stint. In addition to this, it has also had three stints of President’s Rule.
Speaking to ThePrint last week, incumbent CM Pramod Sawant of the BJP said said “being a small state with so many parties, earlier people were electing only the MLA and not the government”. “This time, we are asking the people of Goa to give their vote for a party to form the government, and not just for the MLA,” he said.
Also read: If Utpal was a BJP worker, he should’ve accepted the alternative seat, says Pramod Sawant
Dominance of oldest regional parties declined
The dominance of two of Goa’s oldest regional parties — the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the United Goans Party — weakened after they outlived their original political ideologies and agenda.
The MGP was a party of the ‘bahujan samaj’ and espoused the cause of Goa’s merger with Maharashtra, while the United Goans Party was predominantly Christian and championed the cause of statehood for Goa and retaining its individual identity. The MGP ruled Goa for over 15 years from 1963 to 1979, with a spell of President’s Rule from December 1966 to April 1967.
Since the 1990s, the regional outfits that have cropped up in Goa have been mostly carved out to find space for political ambitions of leaders. Parties like these have entered into alliances of convenience rather than ideology, and have been eventually merged into larger parties or dissolved. For instance, when Barbosa toppled the Rane government, he had formed the Goa People’s Party.
In 1998, Wilfred de Souza, a minister in the Pratapsingh Rane-led cabinet, led a breakaway faction, Goa Rajiv Congress Party, and formed a government with the BJP’s backing.
Francisco Sardinha, meanwhile, had formed the Goa People’s Congress.
More recently, former Congress leader Vijai Sardesai in 2016 formed the Goa Forward Party, bitterly criticising the BJP. In 2017, the party joined hands with the BJP to come to power, with Sardesai eventually become deputy CM, until he was dropped unceremoniously after the BJP bolstered its position by taking in defectors.
Sardesai is contesting the assembly election from his traditional constituency of Fatorda, and this time, has tied up with the Congress in a pre-poll alliance, vowing never to ally with the BJP.
Also read: In high-profile battle for Panaji, BJP has more at stake than just winning Goa’s capital
Defections are a local tradition
Rane, a six-time CM whose governments have been overturned by defectors, told ThePrint last week that “Goa is a small state so politicians can build loyalties”. “But, defections are Goa’s biggest disease,” he said.
This election, the Goa Congress has made a public vow of not taking in defectors.
The Aam Aadmi Party in Goa, meanwhile, made its candidates sign affidavits swearing they will not take a bribe or defect.
However, in the run up to the polls, both the parties have made strategic inductions, taking in defectors from other parties.
For instance, as Congress candidates took their non-defection oaths at religious places, Michael Lobo, a former BJP strongman in Calangute who shifted to the Congress last month, was standing prominently at the forefront.
(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)
Also read: ‘Will always be Congress worker’: Ex-CM Rane pulls out of Goa polls amid feud with son