Election officials on Saturday will begin counting votes to elect a new assembly in Goa, where exit polls predicted the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party might fall short of a clear majority.
But a three-way tussle between the BJP, the opposition Congress, and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) makes this a hard election to call.
Experts said the AAP, making its Goa elections debut, might have eroded votes of traditional rivals BJP and Congress. The forecast for the party in the exit polls ranged from zero to seven seats, though.
Pollsters kept the Congress within striking distance of the BJP, but predicted both parties will win less than the assembly halfway mark of 20 seats.
The BJP, led by defence minister Manohar Parrikar, is confident of retaining power.
Parrikar, a former chief minister, tried to keep the party’s traditional Hindu vote-base united in the face of a stiff challenge from its estranged partners, the Mahashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and Shiv Sena, which have formed an alternative coalition.
“The BJP is sure to win 22-23 seats,” BJP state president Vinay Tendulkar said.
The Congress under Luizinho Faleiro, another former chief minister, hopes that the BJP’s inability to close Goa’s casinos — called vice dens by many locals — and provide meaningful employment and healthcare will tilt the balance in favour of the opposition party.
“We are expecting 23 to 25 seats. Many people, including our senior leaders, were saying the Congress will not get more than three seats. The situation is now from minus to plus,” state party chief Faleiro said ahead of the vote count for the February 4 elections.
Also, he hinted that the Congress might seek support from political parties and independent candidates that believe in the party’s ideology and manifesto.
The AAP had urged voters disillusioned with the BJP to choose the new entrant over the Congress, which has deep roots in the state. The party chose Elvis Gomes, a former bureaucrat, as its candidate for the chief minister’s post.
In 2012, the BJP defeated the Congress and swept to power on the promise of ending corruption by cleaning up the mining sector, withdrawing state support for English-medium primary schools, and closing down casinos, which are a big draw for tourists but unpopular with the locals.
Five years on, Goa’s tourism-dependent economy has been hit hard by the Centre’s demonetisation of high-value notes, and the imposition of the election code of conduct during the peak tourist season. Mining operations have resumed after a Supreme Court-mandated hiatus, but are yet to scale up.
Jobs appear to be the chief preoccupation of voters. The AAP has promised 50,000 jobs for locals from sustainable mining and tourism, while the Congress promised to reserve employment for Goans in the private and public sectors.
The BJP promised to generate jobs through tourism by turning Goa into a venue for national and international events.
The absence of healthcare is another major poll issue that all three parties have promised to address.
A controversy over state support to English-medium primary schools has proved to be a headache for the BJP. In 2012, Parrikar sought support of the Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), a Hindu-nationalist lobby group, promising to make state-supported schools teach in Konkani or Marathi. The BJP has yet to fulfill its promises.
What’s at stake?
Manohar Parrikar: Goa’s most recognizable politician was hailed in 2012 for stitching an unlikely alliance of Hindus and a section of Catholic voters to give the BJP its first majority government in the state. In 2014, he handpicked his successor before taking charge as defence minister. He remains the face of the BJP’s Goa campaign in 2017.
For Parrikar, the stakes have never been higher. A BJP win will force him to choose between the state and Centre. A loss will be viewed as a personal defeat, and may embolden rivals within the party.
Five turning points:
• The MGP-BJP split: The alliance between the MGP, Shiv Sena and Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM) could erode the BJP’s traditional Hindu vote base.
• The Parrikar factor: BJP chief Amit Shah’s announcement that Parrikar will run Goa from New Delhi could either attract voters, or further antagonise rivals within the party.
• 700 soldier votes: Political parties were not allowed to campaign in the Navelim cantonment, but on polling day, 700 troopers voted — prompting a protest from opposition parties.
• Paiso Lo, Vote Do: Both Arvind Kejriwal and Parrikar were served notices by the Election Commission for allegedly urging voters to take money offered by candidates, but vote for their respective parties.
• Party infighting: Tiffs with their high commands prompted veteran leaders Anand Shet of the BJP and Jitendra Deshprabhu of the Congress not to support their party candidates.