Verdict for change
The Congress suffers a crushing defeat, its worst performance since 1980.
AS Goa’s new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government settles down in office, it is easy to forget that a month ago the Congress seemed confident of returning to power in the State. The party is shell-shocked at its crushing defeat, its worst performance since 1980. The Congress won a mere nine seats, and, worse, eight of its Ministers lost the election. The party lost 11 seats, eight of them to the alliance between the BJP and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), two to independents and one to the newly revived Goa Vikas Party (GVP), floated by Francisco Pacheco, former Tourism Minister of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). The NCP, Congress’s alliance partner, lost all of its three seats, two to the BJP and one to an independent. Independents, meanwhile, increased their seats from two in the previous Assembly to five.
The BJP increased its tally from 14 in 2007 to a simple majority of 21 on its own and 24 in combination with its partner. Its alliance with the MGP is one of the many factors that scripted huge wins for the party. Ever since it rode piggyback on the MGP in 1994, the BJP has grown in the State at the cost of the MGP’s soft Hindutva credentials. In the past few Assembly elections, the MGP, which is now reduced to being the hegemonic entity of two brothers, Sudhin and Deepak Dhavlikar, in Goa’s interior Ponda taluk, contested on its own and entered into post-electoral alliances with the Congress for government formation. A regular split in the traditional vote bases of the BJP and the MGP gave the Congress an advantage in the past.
This time, the MGP and the BJP found themselves on a common platform in opposing government grants to mainly Christian primary schools which wanted to shift from Konkani medium to English medium. This emotive plank helped the alliance consolidate traditional Hindu votes in some regions, to the detriment of the Congress. Sangh Parivar organisations such as the Hindu Janajagruti and their women’s wings helped with a hushed campaign to vote for the lotus and even for the Christian candidates in their fold.
The BJP contested 28 seats, left seven to the MGP and strategically supported five independents and other regional outfits such as the GVP in the Christian-dominated Salcete taluk. In a crucial departure from its earlier stance, the BJP sidestepped its own loyalists and picked “winnable” candidates who were new to the party but had the financial wherewithal to run a campaign.
The strategy worked. Anti-incumbency and an anti-Congress wave decimated the Congress in this taluk, which in the past had given the Congress all its eight Assembly seats. This time, Salcete swung its votes in favour of three independents, two GVP candidates and one BJP candidate. The Congress won two seats.
Swing in Catholic votes
In another careful strategy, the BJP replicated a successful experiment in fielding Christian candidates. Over several terms, its Mapusa MLA Francis D’Souza had returned unerringly and with huge margins to the House, benefiting from both the BJP-MGP vote base and his own status in the community. This time the BJP gave at least six Christian nominees the ticket in constituencies with sizable Christian population. It kept away all hard-line Hindutva elements and agendas from the campaign and instead concentrated on corruption and development issues.
All six of the alliance’s Christian nominees won. “There can be little doubt that the Church played a big role in the move away from the Congress,” said hotelier Ralph de Souza. In its pre-election statements, the Council for Social Justice and Peace, the wing of the Church that comments on social matters, had “advised” people to vote wisely, for honest, non-corrupt candidates. And this time, it overtly downplayed its traditional anathema to “communal” politics.
Voters here have long been uncomfortable with their back-against-the-wall plight of having to choose between Congress regimes that sank into corruption and real estate speculation (a bugbear with Christian voters) and the BJP-MGP’s brand of communal politics.
“Voters seem to have been simply fed up with the arrogance and hubris of the Congress and the BJP. It was an anti-Congress wave, not a pro-BJP wave, and certainly not an endorsement of the Hindutva ideology,” said Dr Oscar Rebello, a physician and an activist. According to the Citizen’s Initiative for Communal Harmony, “the anger generated by the Congress and its abysmal levels of corruption clouded the people’s minds so much that they failed to see or overlooked the communal ideology of the BJP.”
The no-nonsense charisma of BJP leader Manohar Parrikar and his abilities as an able administrator played no small role in the voters’ choice of the party. There is still a great deal of mistrust with the BJP, alongside the realisation among a section of the people that while some towering Christian politicians have been eased out, those now elected to the House are largely businessmen, some of whom have in the past displayed scarce abilities to put aside their business interests and stand up to a strong leader.
Dr Wilfred de Souza, the seasoned politician, feels that “Christians have been played for fools this election by the BJP”.
Congress, its own enemy
While the BJP suffers from the complete domination of a single leader, the Congress has too many. In Goa, power centres in the Congress revolved around Vishwajit Rane, son of former Chief Minister and Speaker of the outgoing Assembly Pratapsing Rane; Chief Minister Digambar Kamat; and Ministers Churchill Alemao, Atanasio Monserrate and Ravi Naik.
The party’s ticket distribution exercise – conducted under intense media spotlight – saw each satrap successfully jockeying for the ticket for relatives and cronies, with an eye on a majority in the legislature party and chief ministership. In the process, at least three loyalists were ditched in favour of “winnable” last-minute defectors from the BJP. That these loyalists-turned-rebels won at the hustings was an indication of both the flawed choices the Congress made and the voters’ disgust with its politics.
“There’s something called the aesthetics of corruption, when it gets too vulgar and too in-your-face, it can be the tipping point,” said Alito Sequeira, the sociologist and Goa University professor. The four seats allotted to the Alemao clan would certainly qualify for this, as was the arrogance and presumption in setting out to eye the top job even before a vote was cast.
While the leaders jostled for the ticket, the Congress ran an unorganised campaign. In contrast, the saffron party was hyperactive on Facebook, new media sites and the Internet. Digambar Kamat’s supporters are livid that the party did not sufficiently highlight the Chief Minister’s accessibility, responsiveness to public demands and achievements – he scrapped special economic zones (SEZs), held the country’s first-ever citizen participatory Regional Plan, gave a tremendous boost to art and cultural activities, implemented the Sixth Pay Commission, and introduced schemes such as the distribution of subsidised vegetables and grain and those for the girl child and senior citizens. The Congress ran a lukewarm campaign and was unable to counter any of the BJP’s doublespeak on family raj or the Sangh Parivar’s communal agenda in the State.
BJP and NGOs
The BJP’s campaign was well-planned, aggressive and spread out. The party has in the past decade systematically set up a network of NGOs and back-room activists who bat for it covertly. Occupying the activist space, these satellite NGOs whipped up anti-Congress sentiments, encouraged a split in the votes to the BJP’s favour, and brought the issue of corruption centre stage. Team Anna’s India Against Corruption (Goa unit), with its vote for change slogan, ran a campaign in the State just days ahead of the election. Speeches at the meetings left no one in any doubt about who it favoured.
Another NGO, The Forum of Good Governance, ran a multi-crore advertisement campaign in the print, television/cable and hoarding media that damaged the Congress’ prospects significantly. “How does an NGO get crores [of rupees] to sponsor defamatory advertisements of that nature?” asked Congress’ Rajya Sabha member Shantaram Naik. He holds that the NGO was a smokescreen to beat the expenditure curb of Rs.8 lakh for candidates and has complained to the Election Commission about it. It ended up making a mockery of the Election Commission’s guidelines, he says. While the BJP thanked the media after the campaigning closed, several Congress leaders complained that the media had been less than fair to it. Aside for a BJP mouthpiece, at least one other English daily played an aggressive role in creating an anti-Congress wave.
Political analysts accord no small measure of the BJP’s victory to the effect of a delimitation and redrawing of Assembly constituencies that took place under an earlier BJP regime. At least a few of the seats it won came because of the “delimitation effect”. The accusation – not unfounded – is that in redrawing the Assembly segments, Christian segments were sought to be weakened, by adding in pockets with the majority population and vice versa. This was especially done in Salcete taluk.
This was quite clear in the case of the Cuncolim segment, where the Congress lost to the BJP. “Cuncolim was always Christian-dominated, and even in case of a split of votes, the BJP could rarely win the seat. With delimitation, it added two other areas, Balli and Ambaulim, from a different taluk and revenue district. This seems to have changed the arithmetic here,” says Guilerme Almeida, a local journalist.
And, for all the noise made against mining and real estate lobbies, more than a normal share of legislators in the new House, irrespective of party affiliations, have direct connections to these lobbies. While some columnists hail the “people’s verdict for change”, there are some who caution that Goans may have jumped from the frying pan into the fire.