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Why the buzz in Goa is all about state bypolls not Lok Sabha elections

The BJP's shaky coalition in Goa is set for another test as any decisive results in the bypolls could embolden the Congress' efforts to wrest power. 

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Mumbai: Politicians across the country are gearing up for the Lok Sabha elections, but those in Goa have a far more pressing concern — bypolls to three assembly constituencies that could drastically shift the balance of power in the coastal state.

The bypolls — to the assembly seats of Shiroda, Mapusa and Mandrem — will be held on 23 April, along with the Lok Sabha elections to the state’s two parliamentary constituencies of North Goa and South Goa. The results are to be announced on 23 May.

Any major shift could drastically alter political equations in the state where a shaky numbers game has just about kept the BJP in power.

The 40-member Goa assembly currently has 36 MLAs. Of the remaining four seats, the bypolls to three of them have been necessitated by the defections of two Congress MLAs and the death of a BJP legislator.

The fourth seat — Panaji — fell vacant last month when its incumbent, former chief minister Manohar Parrikar, passed away. The Election Commission, however, is yet to announce a poll date for the constituency.

The BJP, which has 14 MLAs, holds power with the support of one legislator from the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), three from the Goa Forward Party (GFP) and three Independents, for a combined strength of 21 legislators.

The party had, however, only cushioned its strength to 14 last week by breaking the MGP, getting two of the party’s MLAs to merge with it.

The Congress, too has 14 MLAs, and it has been claiming the support of the lone Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) MLA Churchill Alemao.

Any decisive result in the bypolls could provide an impetus to the Congress’s efforts to wrest power in the state, making them of prime importance to all stakeholders.

Also read: Split in BJP’s Goa ally planned a month ago, midnight move was just the climax

Why the bypolls matter

The bypolls are being held as two former Congress MLAs — Subhash Shirodkar and Dayanand Sopte — resigned to join the BJP last year. The third seat fell vacant after BJP minister Francis D’Souza passed away.

The Congress’ strength can swell to 18 from 14 if it wins all the by-elections (including at Panaji for which the dates have not been announced).

Moreover, there are questions over whether snubbed MGP MLA Sudin Dhavalikar will continue to support the BJP if the elections ring in change. Dhavalikar was ousted from the Goa cabinet by BJP Chief Minister Pramod Sawant last week after two of his MGP MLAs merged with the BJP.

“If the BJP loses or wins all three seats now, it will be indicative of the fate of the fourth,” says Cleofato Coutinho, a political commentator and legal expert in Goa. “Losing all four will significantly alter the balance of power in the Congress’ favour and then there is a chance that Independents currently supporting the BJP may shift loyalties.”

Coutinho further said that the Lok Sabha elections will also have a bearing on the state assembly.

“The Goa governor is currently under a BJP-ruled Central government and that does have some impact on how the governor’s office takes decisions regarding parties staking a claim on forming the government,” he said. “A change at the Centre can also prompt allies and Independents to rethink their support to the BJP.”

The MGP’s plans to contest both the Lok Sabha seats and all three bypolls may help the Congress by cutting BJP’s votes in some areas, Coutinho said.

The Congress is set to campaign on the narrative that it has been robbed of the mandate.

“We are telling voters, you give us these four MLAs, we will give you the people’s mandate,” Goa Congress president Girish Chodankar, also the party’s candidate for the Lok Sabha polls from North Goa, told ThePrint.

The BJP, however, is confident of winning all three seats. “We have a 100 per cent guarantee of winning both the Lok Sabha seats as well as all three bypolls in Goa,” CM Sawant told reporters last week.

The numbers game

In the 2017 Goa assembly election, the Congress had emerged as the single-largest party with 17 seats. However, the BJP with 13 seats, swiftly moved to cobble together an alliance with the two regional parties — MGP and GFP — and three Independents.

Over the next two years, while CM Parrikar was battling pancreatic cancer and was often away for medical treatment, the BJP, bit by bit, outsmarted the Congress and recently even its ally MGP to bolster its strength in the assembly.

During this time, the Congress made several failed attempts to reach out to Goa Governor Mridula Sinha and stake claim to form the government.

The BJP’s first masterstroke was getting former Congress CM Pratapsinh Rane’s son, Vishwajeet Rane, to resign as an MLA and get re-elected on a BJP ticket, increasing its strength in the legislature to 14 against the Congress’ 16.

Next, in October last year, the BJP engineered the defections of Congress MLAs Shirodkar and Sopte, cutting the opposition party’s strength to 14, same as the BJP’s.

The BJP’s numbers, however, dwindled to 12 with the deaths of D’Souza and Parrikar. It still installed its own CM, Pramod Sawant, after Parrikar’s death with the support of three legislators each from the MGP and GFP and three Independents.

Also read: Both Goa MLAs who staged coup in MGP & merged it into ‘ally’ BJP are now state ministers

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