Panaji: With just two weeks until the assembly elections in Goa, discussions at the state Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) office in Panaji have been focussing on how smart calculations are as important as political principles in winning elections.
“Utpal Parrikar is simple like his father (late CM Manohar Parrikar), but has never been in politics and doesn’t seem to understand this strategic aspect,” a BJP leader who did not wish to be named, told ThePrint.
The BJP denied Utpal a ticket from his father’s old seat of Panaji, offering him other options instead, and fielded sitting MLA Atanasio Monserrate. This prompted Utpal to contest as an Independent. And thanks to that, the contest for Panaji is set to be a high-profile battle on 14 February.
For 38-year-old Utpal, a businessman-turned-politician, the contest is about claiming his father’s legacy, instead of allowing it to slip through to a rival.
For the BJP, it is as much about political optimisation in the face of anti-incumbency, as it is about owning the late Parrikar’s legacy.
The decision of whether to give the Panaji ticket to Utpal or Monserrate — the latter popularly known as ‘Babush’ — could have ramifications beyond just who wins in the state capital. It has the potential to decide the BJP’s fate in about three or four seats in Goa’s Tiswadi taluka, party sources told ThePrint.
Why did BJP pick Monserrate?
While Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant is confident that the BJP will win more than 22 seats in the 40-member assembly, multiple senior BJP leaders from Goa and Maharashtra admitted to ThePrint that the current government is facing strong anti-incumbency. They believe that BJP’s biggest advantage is the overcrowding of the opposition space with Congress, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Trinamool Congress and other regional outfits throwing their hats into the ring.
In this situation, every single seat that the BJP can add to its list of potentially winnable seat counts.
Monserrate has been in politics since 2002, and has cultivated a following for himself in at least four out of five seats in the Tiswadi taluka, which Panaji comes under.
The MLA, who has a long list of criminal cases against him that includes a rape charge, stayed away from Panaji till Manohar Parrikar was contesting the seat. The late Parrikar had held the seat for the BJP since 1994.
BJP sources and political observers said Manohar Parrikar had an understanding with Monserrate that allowed both to keep their grips on their strongholds without stepping on each other’s toes.
“In the 2017 bypoll to the Panaji seat, when Parrikar had to be elected to the state legislature to be Goa CM, there were talks of Babush contesting as a Congress candidate. But he joined Goa Forward Party, which was our ally back then. It can’t be a coincidence,” a Goa BJP leader said.
Monserrate, an entrepreneur with interests in real estate and hospitality, was legislator for the Taleigao constituency next to Panaji in the Tiswadi taluka in 2002 and 2007. After the 2002 polls, he was also a minister in the Manohar Parrikar-led cabinet briefly.
In 2012, Monserrate was elected as legislator from Tiswadi’s Santacruz seat, while his wife, Jennifer, contested and won the Taleigao seat, which she held on to in 2017 too.
By the 2017 polls, Parrikar had moved to the Union cabinet, and Monserrate contested the election from Panaji and tasted electoral defeat for the first time at the hands of Parrikar protégé Siddharth Kuncalienkar.
He eventually won Panaji in the 2019 bypoll after Parrikar’s death, trumping Kuncalienkar, as a Congress candidate.
Ironically, in 2015, Congress had expelled Monserrate for six years for “anti-party activities”, supporting the BJP’s candidate in the bypoll for Panaji necessitated by Parrikar’s move to the Union cabinet.
In the 2019 bypoll too, Utpal had asked the party for a ticket to contest the election against Monserrate.
Other than Santacruz where Monserrate first won, Taleigao, which he and his wife have represented, and Panaji, where he is an incumbent, the MLA has also built a base in Tisvadi’s St Andre, with sitting MLA Francisco Silveira being among his aides. Besides, leaders backed by Monserrate also control the Panaji city corporation, a part of which falls in Taleigao.
“On one hand is Manohar Parrikar’s son who has never been in politics, never contested an election, and does not have his own work to show people. He is riding on his father’s goodwill, and we don’t know if that may be enough for him to win. On the other hand, with Babush, it is not just one constituency at stake, but three or four,” a senior Goa BJP leader told ThePrint.
Another BJP leader said Monserrate had played “a key role” in getting 10 Congress MLAs to defect to the BJP in 2019, which cemented the party’s hold over the Goa government, so the leadership could not overlook him as a candidate.
The battle for Panaji
Panaji constituency has 22,203 voters and had seen a voter turnout of 78.38 per cent in the 2017 polls, according to data from the Election Commission.
Political commentator Cleofato Coutinho said Monserrate has a strong support base in Panaji and there’s a large slum population from which he draws his support in the capital city. About 20 per cent of the voters, he said, belong to the Saraswat Brahmin community, and are not only seen as opinion-makers in Panaji, but usually also vote en masse for the side perceived as potential victors.
“This time, because of Manohar Parrikar, this block is likely to go with Utpal, which will make Panaji a close contest,” he said.
For the electorate, the one major emotive issue is the string of floating casinos dotting the otherwise picturesque riverside, which Monseratte had vowed to do away with within 100 days of being elected to power in the 2019 bypoll.
Coutinho said this promise had cut ice with Panaji voters in 2019, but Monserrate’s inability to keep his word may go against him this time. In his campaign, Utpal has already taunted his rival over the failure to keep this promise.
While filing his nomination for the 14 February election, Monserrate told reporters, “Parrikar was a leader of a different class, but I have always said after Parrikar, it’s me… why are you asking me about just one candidate (Utpal)? Don’t take other candidates in the fray for granted. Congress also has a good candidate.”
Congress has fielded Elvis Gomes, former state convener of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and a former bureaucrat.
BJP leaders have questioned Utpal’s intention to own his father’s legacy, saying the senior Parrikar never wanted him to enter politics.
Utpal, in his campaign, has indirectly said his fight is against Monserrate. Around the time when Utpal launched his door-to-door campaign, he released a public statement addressed to residents of Panaji, that said, “…today Panaji city finds itself languishing and risks moving towards a dystopian city”. He cited increases in sanitation charges, unplanned development, unfair parking regulations and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) changes as some of the issues. He said he has decided to contest as an Independent to take forward “Bhai’s (senior Parrikar) good work and ensure that the city regains the pristine glory it enjoyed during his time”.
A senior Goa-based journalist, who knows Utpal closely and did not wish to be named, told ThePrint, “Utpal Parrikar is exactly like his father. He is simple, approachable, can talk to anyone. He is also strong-minded like his father. But one aspect that’s different is that Utpal was never in public life. Not just contesting elections, but he wasn’t even actively seen working for his father’s campaigns or political engagements. Manohar Parrikar wanted it that way.”
From that aspect, he said, Utpal has not much to lose. Even if he loses Panaji to Monserrate, he wins the optics of trying to claim his father’s political legacy, and can choose to go back to being what he was for most of his life — a businessman.
(Edited by Manoj Ramachandran)