Goa’s elections will witness new issues, new players

From mining to environment, from AAP to TMC, Goa assembly elections 2022 is likely to be an intriguing battle
Given that the party resembles nothing more than a breakaway Congress group, and the is yet to attract any big names beyond Luizinho Faleiro, much hinges on who else the party can welcome into its fold (ANI) PREMIUM
Given that the party resembles nothing more than a breakaway Congress group, and the is yet to attract any big names beyond Luizinho Faleiro, much hinges on who else the party can welcome into its fold (ANI)
Updated on Oct 06, 2021 04:52 PM IST
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ByGerard de Souza

Panaji: There are five months to go for the assembly elections in Goa, and in a state that already has a multitude of political parties, apart from the heavyweights in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, the political arena is set to become even more crowded.

With elected leaders switching sides; unemployment, environmental degradation and the loss of tourism all constituting major electoral issues; and many sections of the electorate showing signs of fatigue with the BJP and Congress, smaller political organisations are entering the fray, making Goa 2022 an intriguing battle.

On Friday, the Shiv Sena announced that it would contest around 20-25 seats in Goa on its own, making it the latest entrant, following the Trinamool Congress, the Aam Aadmi Party (which contested the last assembly election) in the battle for Goa. They join local parties, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Goa Forward Party, who will fight to preserve and expand their space.

In addition, local activist groupings such as the Goencho Avaz, the Revolutionary Goans as well as the Mining Affected People’s Front have all announced that they will be fielding candidates in the hope of making an impact in the polls and drawing attention to the issues they seek to highlight.

“People in Goa are fed up with politicians across parties. The anti-incumbency against the BJP is very high. Economic failures, attacks on the environment, and threats to liberal Goa are all issues that are on the foremost of the minds of Goans. The Congress party is riddled with internal bickering,” Prabhakar Timble, a former state election commissioner, said.

Mining

The ongoing four-and-a-half-year term of what began as a BJP-led coalition government, but is now a government in which the BJP holds a commanding majority in the 40-member house, has seen Goa’s mines shut by an order of the Supreme Court. This has brought the industry — which was once the mainstay of Goa’s rural economy, and had only begun to restart after a previous ban — to a standstill.

The mining industry was a major revenue and employment generator for the state and, at its peak, contributed close to 30% of the State’s GDP, and employing more than 100,000 people. While the once dusty villages can now boast of greenery, scratch the surface and, in a classic reflection of the environment versus livelihoods debate, the sense of betrayal is all too apparent.

Mining-affected areas comprise nearly one-fourth of Goa’s 40 constituencies and winning a bulk of them will be crucial to the chances of the BJP retaining power. Chief Minister Pramod Sawant himself represents one such constituency in Sanquelim.

The Congress and BJP have both accused each other of being responsible for the mining shutdown. While Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant blamed former Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, saying that the bulk of the illegal mining happened during his tenure, the Congress hit back saying that the allegations were unfounded, especially since the BJP has yet to nail anyone in the case despite being in power for close to a decade since the “scam” broke.

Instead, the Congress has claimed that the BJP has taken those dependent on the industry for a ride by repeatedly promising to restart mining but doing nothing about it.

“If they really wanted to resume mining in the interest of the unemployed workers and families, they would have done so long ago. Instead, they have waited three years to announce something. The Prime Minister himself promised that mining would restart prior to the Lok Sabha elections,” Puti Gaonkar, the president of the Goa Mining People’s Front said. The Goa government, only earlier this year, announced the setting up of a mining corporation to resume mining after all attempts to undo the Supreme Court’s orders failed.

The Goa government lost precious time as the then Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar took ill and ultimately succumbed to a debilitating disease. His demise left the state, and the BJP, in limbo as the party scrambled to shore up numbers of a then minority government, with coalition partners having given support to the BJP on condition that Parrikar would be the Chief Minister. By the time the state government got its act together, and Pramod Sawant filed a review petition in the Supreme Court, the petition was junked by the Court on grounds of inordinate delay.

Environmental degradation

On the other hand, the state has also witnessed a persistent movement — Goa Against Coal — to protest against the central government’s plans to more than triple the quantity of coal imported at Goa’s Mormugao Port and have it transported inland via an expanded railway and road network. The movement has blamed both Congress and BJP governments, which they said had served to turn Goa into a “coal hub”.

While the Goa Against Coal movement claimed to remained apolitical, several of its leaders have aligned the the Goencho Avaz, a group of activists who say they have been “forced to enter politics” because, despite highlighting several issues over the years, “successive governments have turned a deaf ear” to issues faced by the people of Goa.

“We have been highlighting several issues, coastal issues, environmental issues but the government has been doing nothing about it. We are not contesting to be career politicians but to resolve the issues plaguing the state,” Viriato Fernandes, a former Navy captain, who is leading the outfit, told HT.

Goa has also witnessed a movement against the doubling of the railway line from the Mormugao Port to north interior Karnataka via the eco-sensitive Western Ghats, and the expansion of the existing national highway along the same route, which, the protesters said was being done solely to carry more coal.

The standing committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests in April last year granted its approval to the diversion of forest land from notified wildlife sanctuaries in Mollem along Goa’s eastern frontier with Karnataka for three projects — the doubling of an existing railway line between Hubli in Karnataka and Vasco da Gama in Goa, the expansion of the national highway 4A between Belgaum in North Karnataka and Goa, and a power line.

The approvals were met with protests that continue intermittently, demanding that the projects be scrapped for environmental reasons and because it is believed that the completion of the projects will facilitate the transport of more coal. Protests also erupted against Goa Coastal Zone Management Plan, which critics said deliberately excluded sand dunes and other ecologically sensitive features to “concretise” the coast.

The BJP has defended the projects, saying that they are being undertaken in “national interest”, and that it would go ahead despite an adverse recommendation from the Supreme Court’s Central Empowered Committee (CEC) that suggested the railway project be scrapped, and the highway and power line project be altered.

Opposition parties have, however, unitedly thrown their weight against the projects with the Congress, the Goa Forward Party, the Aam Aadmi Party and now the Trinamool Congress speaking against the projects.

A dysfunctional Congress

A part of the reason for a multiplicity of parties vying for a shot at power is down to the Congress’s inability to project itself as an effective opposition. Instead, the party has steadily bled MLAs to the ruling BJP.

The first Congress MLA to switch to the BJP was Vishwajit Rane who resigned within weeks of being elected and contested on a BJP ticket after he was made a minister. A year later, Dayanand Sopte and Subhash Shirodkar quit as MLAs and joined the BJP. Despite losing three MLAs, the party added one to its tally when it wrested Parrikar’s seat from the BJP, with Atanasio Monserrate defeating Parrikar’s protege Siddharth Kuncaliencar. But the Congress’s joy was short lived after Monserrate led the group of 10 MLAs who defected en masse to the BJP after the BJP retained power in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls reducing the Congress to five MLAs.

In the absence of the opposition, and the inability of the Congress party to show a united front with each of the five remaining MLAs fiercely individualistic, major protests against the government have been led by people’s movements, and, in some case, by the ruling MLAs themselves. On Friday, Tourism Minister Manohar Ajgoankar blamed his own government saying “nothing was getting done”, taking potshots at the government over water shortage, repeated power cuts, bad state of the roads and other issues.

The Congress has acknowledged that the presence of multiple players was more likely to hurt its prospects than the BJP’s.

“There are two forces working — one force is the fascist force of the BJP which wants to completely control his country and keep everything under its command, and using the power of money, they are trying to create an authoritarian state. The second thing that is happening in Goa is parties are operating here to ensure that the BJP wins,” AICC desk incharge of Goa Dinesh Gundu Rao, said. “Today, the anti-BJP vote is huge with high anti incumbency against this government. But there are forces in collusion with various other forces which are trying to divide this vote.” he added.

The Goa Forward Party has been publicly advocating for an alliance with the Congress, arguing that only a “team” effort, which provides a clear alternative to the BJP, will ensure the defeat of the BJP. The Congress has indicated it is now willing to enter into alliances with “like minded” parties but hasn’t specified which outfit it will go with, with its Maharashtra ally NCP an option as well.

“We are willing to come together with like minded people and parties who hold secular principles, who have been in Goa for a long time. We are willing to talk and have been talking. In the interest of Goa we are ready for this,” Rao told a press conference on Sunday.

The rise of AAP and TMC

AAP and the TMC, on the other hand, insist that they are best placed to take on the BJP, pointing to their success back in their home states. But, privately, the AAP acknowledges that while it is certainly better placed than it was last time, its zone of influence does not go beyond a few constituencies, mainly Congress leaning constituencies. The Trinamool, the latest entrant that is this time backed by an army of volunteers and surveyors, is yet to fully reveal what its plans are. Given that the party resembles nothing more than a breakaway Congress group, and the is yet to attract any big names beyond Luizinho Faleiro, much hinges on who else the party can welcome into its fold.

As things stand, both the AAP and TMC are “strong” in Goa’s Catholic dominated Salcete taluka with very little influence outside it. Luizinho Faleiro, who switched to the TMC, represents the Navelim constituency in Salcete. When the AAP won a lone zilla parishad seat in the polls held a few months back, it was in Benaulim, also a constituency in Salcete. It’s no surprise then, that the Congress, which once considered Salcete its bastion, is worried. Home to eight constituencies making it the single largest taluka in terms of seats in Goa, winning Salcete or ensuring your rival doesn’t win Salcete is key to winning power in Goa.

AAP entered Goa in 2014 (Lok Sabha elections) but lost both the Lok Sabha seats it contested, with its candidates failing to save their deposits. In 2017, the party contested 39 assembly seats and lost its deposit in 38 with a vote share of 6.4%. The party failed to make an impact, except for scuttling the Congress chances in a couple of constituencies.

Until now, AAP was the only party that was claiming to be an alternative to both the Congress and the BJP. But the TMC is now a talking point with a recognised face, Luizinho Faleiro, leading the party, and an army of volunteers brought in “from every nook and corner of the country”.

The only party that can legitimately claim to be on course to eat into the BJP’s vote share is the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), which has traditionally jostled with the BJP for the Hindu Bahujan Samaj vote. MGP leader Sudin Dhavalikar has ruled out aligning with the BJP, with which it had a pre-poll alliance in 2012, and the Congress, but has left the door open for an alliance with a smaller player. Dhavalikar has also held meetings with AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal but talks haven’t progressed . The Goa Suraksha Manch and the Shiv Sena, which were MGP’s partners in a pre poll alliance in 2017, remain fringe players for the moment.

The BJP has brushed aside the possible effects of a multiplicity of players in the fray.

“Lots of parties are coming to Goa and they are welcome. The people of Goa are smart. They have shown their political wisdom in the past. Lots of people have come, given promises, and cheated the people. There will be no effect on the Bharatiya Janata Party. We are a party that does not just show up at the time of elections and have been working for the people all the year round. We are a people centric party and there will be no effect on us,” BJP spokesperson Narendra Sawaikar said.

But the party’s main challenge is internal. Infighting in the party between old “loyal” members and new entrants that the party has welcomed from the Congress threatens to split the BJP, with several of the old leaders vowing to contest the polls regardless of whether they are given tickets by the party or not. The party, however, hopes to mollify disgruntled elements before discontent snowballs further.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2021