Campaign trail: Jobs emerge as key issue for Goa CM Pramod Sawant
A former BJP youth wing leader, Pramod Sawant rose through the ranks to get the top post after his predecessor Manohar Parrikar passed away.
Well past noon on Friday, a group of men and women gathered at Bhamaikar Wada around a shrine next to a narrow road leading to Surla village. Their two-hour wait culminated in the arrival of chief minister Pramod Sawant. With a packed campaigning schedule for the upcoming elections, Sawant sought to meet as many people as possible.
At each stop, he met around 20-30 people. “I am here to meet you and seek your blessings ahead of the elections. There should be no one resentful that I did not come to visit. Is there anyone who is aggrieved? he asked the people gathered.
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Amid murmuring, Sawant turned his attention to some women complaining about the failure in providing jobs.
A ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader stepped in to ask the audience to raise these demands when Sawant returned to power. “Which is why we need to vote for him in large numbers so that we can demand our requests be heard,” he said.
Elections to Goa’s 40-member legislative assembly are scheduled for February 14 and campaigning ends on Saturday.
A two-time lawmaker, 48-year-old Sawant is seeking to retain the predominantly Hindu Sanquelim seat. Prior to his victory in 2012, Sanquelim was a Congress stronghold. Before that, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party held sway in the area.
In 2012, Sawant defeated the Congress’s Pratap Gauns by a margin of nearly 7,000 votes on the back of an anti-Congress wave in the state. In 2017, Sawant’s victory margin fell. His closest competitor, Dharmesh Saglani (Congress), got 7,927 votes.
A former BJP youth wing leader, Sawant got the top post after his predecessor Manohar Parrikar passed away. Sawant was chosen despite his relative inexperience two years ago.
“It is not possible to go to every house... door to door. But I am holding meetings at the booth level and I am receiving good response because workers are by my side and the people are expressing support,” he said as he greeted more voters.
He now carries a greater weight of expectation of his constituents. “There is no doubt that we will vote for you, but our work needs to get done,” a woman told Sawant, amid complaints about the lack of jobs.
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At almost every gathering he addressed or homes he visited, people asked for jobs for their children.
“There is a lot of expectation for jobs...we have been able to fill some vacancies, many are pending,” Sawant said as he walked from one house to another. “Due to the closure of mining and the Covid-19 pandemic, people are expecting jobs... we were able to give some jobs...” he said.
Surla village in the Sanquelim constituency is surrounded by closed iron ore mines in Velguem and Pissurlem. On the other side lies the Vedanta pig iron plant at Amona Navelim, which has also been shuttered amid issues related to environmental clearance.
Located between the coast and the western ghats, fertile land is rare in this part of Goa. Years of mining weaned farmers away from traditional occupations and destroyed farmlands. Agriculture is not an option everyone can fall back upon.
Sanquelim’s rural parts are where Sawant, who hails from the Pale-Cotombi village, draws his support from. The chief minister is banking on an active network of BJP workers to mobilise voters in the region. “Do you not turn your resentment into a vote against the BJP just because someone has visited you recently for the first time in five years. The work we have begun can be completed only if I get another term in office, else your demands will remain unfulfilled,” he told his constituents.
Sawant and Saglani have both mounted aggressive campaigns in the villages of the constituency. Besides Sawant and Saglani, the MGP’s Mahadev Khandekar, the AAP’s Manojkumar Ghadi and others including from the Shiv Sena, the Revolutionary Goans Party and the Jai Maha Bharat Party are contesting.
But not everyone is won over.
“The price of cylinders has reached ₹1,000,” a woman said. “We have been waiting 10 years for the promised jobs,” said another.
The women, in their mid 40s, hail from predominantly agricultural households surviving on income from arecanut, cashew and rice fields. The clampdown of mining activity has left those who operated trucks without any income while the trucks lie idle. The shut down in mining and consequent scaling down of operations at the neighbouring Vedanta plant has also resulted in loss of livelihood.
Voters expect candidates to personally inquire about their welfare in Goa, where Laxmikant Parsekar, a four-time lawmaker, was defeated by a margin of 7,000 votes when he was the chief minister.
Facing Sawant this time again is Saglani again. He lost by a little over 2,000 votes in 2017. Since then, Saglani has been able to ensure Congress wrested control of the Sanquelim municipal council. He also has a stronger presence in the urban parts of the constituency.
“Sawant is facing a battle to retain the confidence of his voters that have a predisposition towards the BJP. It is easier said than done. As a legislator of two terms and having risen to the post of chief minister, expectations were running high. Support for him remains high in rural parts but he may face some hurdles in the municipal areas,” the editor of a local paper, Pandurang Gaonkar, said.