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Inside the intriguing quest for Goa

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi kicks a football at the launch of a football tournament during the Congress Workers’ Convention at Goa’s Shyama Prasad Mukherjee stadium (Photo: PTI)Premium
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi kicks a football at the launch of a football tournament during the Congress Workers’ Convention at Goa’s Shyama Prasad Mukherjee stadium (Photo: PTI)

  • A beeline of political parties, including AAP and TMC, fancy their chances in India’s smallest state
  • Under the newbies, the election agenda has expanded to include contentious issues such as mining, casinos, the Mopa ‘second airport’, and the threatened Mollem tract of Western Ghats

An incredible carnival is playing out in Panjim, the tiny riverside capital of Goa. Every morning, the main thoroughfares are festooned anew with banners, placards and flags to herald the arrival of some fresh political bigwig. When the roads themselves were re-tarred overnight, it was to smooth the passage of Amit Shah, the Union home minister. But it was Arvind Kejriwal whose smile was ubiquitous on all the hoardings. Soon afterwards, I was startled to recognize Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress outside my window. He was perched on the pillion of a motorcycle “pilot" who deposited him right on my doorstep.

This surreal scenario is because India’s smallest state is preparing for polls, scheduled next February. And everyone is aware that the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has ruled since 2012, is vulnerable under its notably weak chief minister, Pramod Sawant. According to party sources, Prime Minister Narendra Modi intends to go all out to retain Goa, which he regards as talismanic.

But for the exact same reason, and fresh from its drubbing of the Shah-Modi combine in West Bengal, the All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) leapfrogged the country to set up shop in the Konkan region, promising to repeat the same feat here as well.

West Bengal chief minister and All India Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee during a recent visit to Goa
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West Bengal chief minister and All India Trinamool Congress chairperson Mamata Banerjee during a recent visit to Goa

Several senior Trinamool Congress officials have taken up residence, accompanied by hundreds of bushy-tailed young functionaries of Prashant Kishore’s heavily touted Indian Political Action Committee. Thousands more are expected to follow, but their advance cohort has made an unmistakable impact. Shaken out of familiar bucolic paradigms, Goa’s political arena is charged with energy, intrigue and bombast. No one has seen anything like it before.

To be sure, much of the back-and-forth remains at the level of farce, strongly reminiscent of V.S. Naipaul’s 1958 comic classic, The Suffrage of Elvira. In that early novel, the Nobel laureate skewered the emergence of modern politicking in rural Trinidad: strutting blowhards, vote-banks, Hindu-Muslim (and Christian) animosities, cynicism, pandering and corruption. At one point, the comparatively aloof Mrs Baksh warns with prophetic portent: “Everybody just washing their foot and jumping in this democracy business. But I promising you, for all the sweet it begin sweet, it going to end damn sour."

In an identically slapstick vein, the first Konkani advertisements the Trinamool Congress blanketed across Goa misspelled the word for Goa itself, hampering its quest for authenticity. Then, its initial recruit, Congress veteran Luizinho Faleiro, kept talking up Mamata Banerjee’s street-fighting credentials, which had the effect of menacing an electorate that treasures peace and harmony. After that, TMC politician Babul Supriyo was helicoptered in to explain why Goans should vote for the party, but could only manage meaningless (and widely ridiculed) drivel about Bengalis liking fish and football just like the locals. The limit to fun and games has already been reached, however. All this frenzied jockeying also created an opening for what locals view as “regressive politics", previously absent in Goa.

For example, last week, the Aam Admi Party (AAP) president and New Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal sparked a fresh controversy when he offered Goans something that no one had asked for or ever expected: “We will facilitate an Ayodhya pilgrimage for Hindus. For the Christians, we will give a free Velankanni pilgrimage, and for the Muslims, we will give a free Ajmer Sharif pilgrimage."

Meanwhile, the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party is telegraphing mixed signals. On the one hand, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was photographed embracing Pope Francis in Rome—party strategists think this would bridge their relationship with Goa’s sizeable Catholic minority. At the same time, the beleaguered Sawant lifted the state’s former chief minister, late Manohar Parrikar’s informal but nonetheless rigorously enforced ban on the Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishva Hindu Parishad, and invited the flamboyant Tejasvi Surya to campaign on his behalf.

The 30-year-old member of the Parliament from Bengaluru, Karnataka, promptly spoke in a manner that Goa is unaccustomed to: “We cannot let Mamata Begum enter the land of Parashuram and the land of Shivaji Maharaj," the young BJP leader said. “They have no leader, no cadre, no voter and no future."

Why Goa

“The new forces entering Goan politics have realized the BJP is very weak," Damodar Mauzo, the giant of contemporary Konkani literature, said. “Each one now seems to think they are the saviours the people of Goa are waiting for, and splash money around to make an impression. I think the people are amused by these national leaders entering one after another, making the same old promises they will most likely break if elected. So, what’s new about it, exactly?"

Mauzo has seen it all in Goa, from colonial rule to the swift decapitation of the 450-year-old Estado da India of Portugal in 1961, and the all-important 1967 opinion poll that rejected merger with Maharashtra and resulted in Union territory status.

In the 1980s, he was in the vanguard of fiery language agitations that led to Konkani becoming a national language, and paved the way for statehood. But in his fictional oeuvre, the 75-year-old embodies vegllench munisponn, the universalistic Goan humanism which tends to thwart the agenda of bigots and bullies. That is why in 2018, his name was reportedly discovered on a hit list maintained by the suspected killers of Bengaluru-based journalist Gauri Lankesh. Mauzo is now compelled to move everywhere with state-supplied bodyguards.

Looking back to Goa’s debut in the Indian union, Mauzo recollected that Nehru was surprised when great opportunities were offered on a platter, but Goans would shun them. “Scholars wanted independent language status for Konkani, yet our own people claimed it was a dialect of Marathi. Funds were available for development, and our government took pride in sending the money back unused. Things haven’t changed much. Goa’s people are still unpredictable, and (in Nehru’s infamous phrasing) ajeeb (strange)," he said.

That home truth may prove to be the fatal stumbling block to high-octane attempts to corral Goa’s voters. The historian Parag Parobo summarizes this essential historical context very well in his 2015 book, titled India’s First Democratic Revolution: Dayanand Bandodkar and the Rise of Bahujan in Goa—“(Ours) is the story of political will. It is the story of a state that, in its very first election, surprised the country by bringing to power a government that, with the Bahujan Samaj as its political base, was the first of its kind."

He is referring to the counter-intuitive results from Goa’s first free elections in 1963. At that time, Jawaharlal Nehru’s nominees for the Congress ticket (note: my grandfather, the poet and academic Armando Menezes, was one who ran for the South Goa seat in the Lok Sabha) were badly thrashed. The party lost only its second state since 1947, blindsided by the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party under Dayanand Bandodkar, whom Parobo describes as “a lower caste capitalist and philanthropist."

Could something like that recur in Goa, with the leaders of national politics getting it terribly wrong all over again? “The fact is that Nehru was ajeeb, not the Goans, as it was his expectations that were far from reality," observed Radharao Gracias, a veteran politician of the previous generation. He said the new entrants could be making precisely the same mistake.

Gracias understands why the biggest political players decided to slug it out. “A political party likes to add to the tally of the number of states in which it rules. Goa being so small, it is easier to make an impact. Besides, a party must win either the prescribed number of representatives or 6% votes in at least four states to be recognized as a national party, or to retain the recognition previously obtained," he explained.

Of course, the additional, and game-changing, factor is BJP’s abysmal record, along with its widely criticized platoon of defectors under Sawant.

This, too, is surreal: of the 27 MLAs or members of the legislative assembly in the Goa BJP, an astonishing 15 are Catholics. With party ideology jettisoned, there is only license to run amok. In fact, even the erstwhile governor Satya Pal Malik (now the governor of Meghalaya) admitted to corruption in the Goa government. But Sawant refuted his claims.

This debacle of misgovernance is why virtually every seat is up for grabs in Goa, and explains why AAP and TMC have unleashed their go-for-broke campaigns. This much is amply evident for them, and the Congress as well: fresh faces and independents stand an unusually wide-open chance to pick up seats, and possibly even sweep the state if they get their acts together in fairly short order.

The expanding agenda

To date, this hasn’t happened. And yet, there are undeniably salutary side effects from the free-for-all state of affairs in Goa. The bracket of election issues has expanded dramatically, and now includes real bones of contention: mining, casinos, the ill-advised Mopa ‘second airport’, and the threatened Mollem tract of Goa’s vital Western Ghats biosphere. These issues have always been sidelined from public discussion. But now, they’re on the table.

Derek O’Brien, TMC’s chief national spokesperson, has publicly endorsed the activists who battled the state for decades, resulting in the Supreme Court cancelling 88 iron ore mining leases, and mandating sweeping changes. “I admire and appreciate the work being done by Goa Foundation (who won that case) on the mining issue. There has been no recovery of huge losses from state-sponsored mining loot. This wealth of 35,000 crore can enable a dividend for every Goan, today and in the future," he said.

Similarly unprecedented is Rahul Gandhi’s bold assurance in Panjim: “We will not allow Goa to become a coal hub. The most important thing Goa has is the environment, and that has to be protected at all costs."

All this is invigoratingly welcome, but where is the next generation of candidates to implement these politics of tomorrow? To see what might be shaping up on the hustings, I took a close look at one significant seat, the Saligao constituency that spans across Bardez in North Goa to the banks of the Mandovi river. There are hundreds of traditional farmers and fishermen here, but perhaps as many dollar millionaires from around the world, who own heritage houses, and newly constructed luxury homes and apartments on the heights, and down the waterline.

Saligao provides an excellent snapshot of what’s at stake in contemporary Goa, and it is also one of very few battlegrounds where the recent churn has already resulted in the announcement of a debutant campaigner: Yatish Naik for TMC.

The 36-year-old lawyer is an unquestionably uncommon candidate in a state where much of the political cadre has fallen in the vein of hustlers, goons, charlatans and career criminals (a full quarter of sitting MLAs face serious charges). He was a protégé of Dr Wilfred de Souza, the Uganda-born physician who held the Saligao seat for Congress for almost 20 years, and considers himself an admirer of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s “astuteness and political sagacity."

“No one admits it, but the economy of the state has collapsed. There is very little employment. Inflation is sky high. Our existing politicians have no plans to combat these problems, and lack the competence to even understand them properly," Naik told this writer. “People keep saying ‘outsider party’ but neither the Congress, nor BJP originated in Goa either. As far as I am concerned, we are in a desperate crisis that has to be solved right away, with an agenda of inclusive, transparent, environment-friendly good governance. I feel that my fellow Goans fully understand what’s at stake, and will go for the right choice on Election Day."

To outside observers, Goa represents the zenith of middle-class aspirations: cosmopolitanism, urbanity, a great quality of life in balance with nature. All those factors still exist, but there’s much more behind the stereotypes, including an array of unresolved issues that have emerged to the fore precisely due to the entry of new political alignments with little to lose. The coming months are going to be filled with spectacle, and at this point only one thing is clear in Goa. This election race is wide open.

Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer based in Goa.

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