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‘Ready for change’: Underdog AAP fancies chances in Goa elections

Party senses favourable undercurrent and sees state as perfect platform to establish credentials as a national alternative to BJP

india Updated: Jan 12, 2017 08:47 IST
Aman Sethi
Aam Aadmi Party

AAP members see the perfect platform for the party to establish its credentials as a national alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party.(Aman Sethi/Hindustan Times)

In villages of this coastal state, the catchphrase is “undercurrent” — an unseen drift that Elvis Gomes hopes will crest in victory for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the February 4 polls.

“You can sense the undercurrent, people are fed up of the BJP and the Congress,” said Gomes, a retired bureaucrat and the AAP’s chief ministerial candidate in Goa, as he canvassed support in his village of Cuncolim. “They are ready for change.”

In the state’s small population of 1.8 million — a tenth of Delhi’s, high literacy, internet penetration, and a popular perception of rampant corruption, AAP members see the perfect platform for the party to establish its credentials as a national alternative to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

“We decided on Goa soon after we won Delhi in 2015,” said AAP spokesperson Ashutosh. “We conducted more than 500 meetings; there is a clear undercurrent in our favour.”

Read | There comes a time when you say enough is enough: Elvis Gomes, AAP’s Goa CM face

In 2012, deep disaffection with the Congress drove even its traditional supporters such as Catholics and Muslims to vote BJP. Next month, many such reluctant BJP voters could gravitate to the AAP.

Political observers, however, said AAP was still seen as a Delhi party in a state with strong regional parties and a suspicion of outsiders.

“There was a lot of excitement when the party entered Goa, but that aura has since faded,” said Sujay Gupta, editor of O’Heraldo, one of Goa’s oldest newspapers. “Goans are wary of Delhi people coming down and telling them how to vote.” He said a faltering ruling party and fragmented opposition meant AAP could win seats, but was unlikely to get a majority.

Across the state, AAP has reached out to the same mix of young professionals and working class voters as its base in Delhi. “Goa’s Scheduled Tribes, for instance, are underserved and outside mainstream political conversation,” said a Delhi-based AAP worker. “We see a parallel here with Delhi’s unauthorised colonies.”

Read | BJP to contest 37 seats in Goa, support 3 candidates in Catholic stronghold

The absence of neighbourhood-level networks is a drawback, but the party has tapped activists such as Oscar Rebello, a physician and former convener of the Goa Bachao Abhiyan, a coalition of activists which opposes rezoning of forest cover into industrial areas under the “regional plan”. “Oscar has helped us tap into a much wider network,” said the AAP worker.

But working with activists has also hurt the party. In Benaulim in south Goa, AAP relied on the Colva Civic and Consumer Forum (CCCF) to spread its message. Last month, Judith Almeida, the CCCF secretary, accused the party of lacking transparency. She is now contesting the Benaulim seat as a candidate for the United for Mother Goa-Goenchea Lokancho Avaz.

Ultimately, the party’s most ardent supporters are those who say they are tired of choosing between the BJP and the Congress.

“I voted BJP in 2012 because they opposed the regional plan, but then they disguised the same provisions as the investment promotion board,” said Gavin Alvares, a 48-year-old cartoonist and undersea welder. Alvares has since participated in protests against the “regional plan” and donated money to AAP. “I am just sick of politicians treating us like we are stupid. We aren’t stupid.”

Read | Goa Church to give guidelines for helping people pick ‘right’ candidate in polls

Even as AAP exudes confidence and Gomes marches on, it is his home turf Cuncolim which illustrates why the 2017 election is proving so hard to call.

Cuncolim had never elected a BJP representative, but in 2012 Joaquim Alemao, Congress MLA and minister for urban development, lost to Subhash “Rajan” Naik, a BJP municipal councilor, by only 1,313 votes.

“We were so tired of the Congress, we voted against a sitting MLA and minister,” said Edwin Rebello, a sailor in the merchant navy. “But Rajan Naik didn’t do anything, so, we are supporting AAP now.” Rebello said he and his shipmates had taken leave to stay on shore and campaign for Gomes.

Naik is contesting again this year, as is Alemao – this time as an independent. The Congress is expected to field a candidate as well; which means the Catholic vote could go three ways.

In Cuncolim’s busy market square, Damodar Desai, head of the Shanti Durga Autorickshaw Association, a union with 25 members, said he would support Alemao. “AAP has been propped up by the BJP to break the Catholic vote,” Desai said. “Gomes was a bureaucrat for 20 years; he has the government’s blessings to fight this election.”

Gomes bristled at this allegation, saying he left service after the ruling BJP superseded his promotions in favour of junior officers with political connections. Gomes challenged the order in court and won, but decided to retire anyway.

“We won 67 out of 70 seats in Delhi, marginalising the BJP and relegating the Congress to zero,” said Gomes. “It is simply propaganda to say we are the B-team of the BJP.”

AAP spokesperson Ashutosh said the electorate was receptive to the party’s core promises: corruption-free administration; 50,000 new jobs over five years; unemployment allowance of Rs 5,000 per month; old age pensions; rehabilitation for those affected by mining; and closing Goa’s casinos.

Like in Delhi, AAP has prepared individual manifestos for each of the 40 seats in Goa. In Cuncolim, Gomes has promised to revive the constituency’s faltering industrial area by bringing in non-polluting industries that will provide jobs for locals.

“The constituency manifestos worked very well for us in Delhi, as voters put forward ideas we would never had come up with by ourselves,” said Ashutosh. In Patparganj in east Delhi, for instance, voters had asked for a public library. “In Goa, in many constituencies, parents said they wanted more extra-curricular activities in their schools.”

Read | AAP does not have a single penny to fight Punjab, Goa polls: Kejriwal