New Delhi: On a Sunday afternoon less than three weeks before assembly elections in the state, the Congress’s 36 poll candidates in Goa made a beeline to a temple, a dargah and a church to take an “oath of loyalty”.
“After getting elected on a Congress ticket, we will not switch sides and continue to be with the Congress and work towards the growth of the party,” said the party candidates, while taking the oath.
A similar exercise may be carried out in Manipur, another state going to polls in the upcoming phase of assembly elections.
In both Goa and Manipur, the Congress saw a similar electoral fate in the 2017 state elections. The Congress had emerged as the single largest party in the two states, both of which yielded a fractured verdict, but failed to form government in either as it couldn’t gather the numbers.
Thereafter, several of the party’s legislators started defecting to other parties. Five years later, just two of the Goa Congress’ 17 MLAs from 2017 remain in the unit, and just 13 of 28 in Manipur.
The Congress’ failure to form the government became its Achilles’ heel in both states, with the BJP and other Opposition parties targeting it for the same in the run-up to polls.
It is for this reason that the party says such an oath is required. The Congress wants to show that it is “serious” about changing the “perception of the people” that if Congress candidates are elected, they will switch to other parties.
‘We are God-fearing people, will not defect’
The Congress candidates in Goa visited the Mahalaxmi Temple, the Bambolim Cross, and the Hazrat Hamza Shah Dargah in North Goa on 23 January (Sunday).
All three are considered special places of faith in the state. The Mahalaxmi Temple, for example, is dedicated to Mahalaxmi, a revered deity in Panaji. The late former chief minister Manohar Parrikar had even renamed the chief minister’s bungalow ‘Mahalaxmi’.
Similarly, the Bambolim Cross, known as the Miraculous Cross or Fulancho Khuris, is believed to fulfil any wish made while praying there. Goans say cricketer Sachin Tendulkar “always visits” Fulancho Khuris whenever he comes to the state.
In all three places of worship, the candidates took similar pledges.
“Mahalaxmi, the 36 of us, by keeping this shriphal (coconut) at your feet, swear that after getting elected on a Congress ticket, we will not switch sides,” the candidates repeated after a priest administering the oath at the temple.
“We will continue to be with the Congress and work towards the growth of the party,” they added.
Congress leader and former Goa chief minister Digambar Kamat — who also took the oath as the poll candidate from Margao — told ThePrint that the party wanted to “assure the people of Goa” that what happened in 2017 and after “will not happen again”.
“We are very serious about this and will not allow any party to poach our MLAs. We are God-fearing people. We have full faith in the almighty. Hence, today, we have taken a pledge that we will not defect,” he added.
He further said about the defectors: “The BJP gave offers and hence they switched parties. We want to assure the people of Goa that it will not happen again. Goans are not for wholesale purchase. Hence, we are aggressively working against the defections which killed the democracy of Goa.”
ThePrint sought a comment from All India Congress Committee (AICC) Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao via calls and text messages, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.
‘Oath will create a moral binding’
AICC observer for Manipur Pradyut Bordoloi told ThePrint that he had suggested the idea of the oath to the party high-command, and they would take the final decision. He added that the oath, while not “feasible” when it comes to impeding defections, will create a “moral binding” on the candidates.
“The oath of allegiance is a suggestion of mine. But a decision has to be taken by the Congress party,” Bordoloi further said.
“In personal life, moral binding is very important. Theoretically, it may not be feasible if people want to cross over given the anti-defection law, but there should be a moral binding. That’s what I have mooted,” he added.
“Like in Goa, in Manipur too, due to the party not being able to form the government in spite of having the numbers last time, there is a perception that is being created that there is no point voting for the Congress. That a vote to Congress may be wasted because we will not be able to form government in spite of the numbers as our MLAs are not loyal,” a member of the AICC, who is in Manipur for the party’s poll campaign, told ThePrint.
“The idea behind this oath in both Goa and Manipur is to tell the people that the party is looking into this issue seriously. It is also an obligation on the MLA, if elected, as they have publicly sworn loyalty to the party after getting the ticket,” the AICC member added.
Congress’ defection dilemma
In 2017, the Congress had won 28 of the 60 assembly seats in Manipur. However, after the results, the BJP managed to stitch together a last-minute alliance with the National People’s Party, Naga People’s Front and the Lok Janshakti Party to form the government.
Since the results, the Congress has lost 15 legislators, mainly through defections, to other parties. As of today, the party has 13 MLAs in the Manipur assembly.
In Goa, the Congress won 17 out of the 40 assembly seats in 2017. That apart, the party also had an informal pre-poll alliance with the Goa Forward Party (GFP), which won three seats. It had also extended support to an Independent candidate, Rohan Khaunte, who also won from his seat.
However, just like in Manipur, the party couldn’t go the last mile to pull together the numbers. The BJP, which won 13 seats, joined hands with the GFP, 3 Independent MLAs including Khaunte, and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), which also had three seats, to form the government. After proving majority in a floor test, late BJP leader Parrikar took oath as chief minister.
Ten Congress MLAs subsequently defected en masse to the BJP in 2019. In the run-up to the upcoming elections, more Congress MLAs have defected to the BJP and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC), a new player in Goa. As of today, the Congress is left with only two MLAs.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)