Charismatic Portugal PM of Goan origin

Charismatic Portugal PM of Goan origin

Years ago late one evening, a stocky young man accompanied by a woman walked into the office of a newspaper I then worked for. The couple had been wandering through the lanes of Fontainhas – referred to in post-Liberation Goa as Panjim’s ‘Latin quarter’ for its Iberian layout – when they spotted the familiar Portuguese signboard O Heraldo.

António Costa, a young MP at the time in the 1990s, was in India with a parliamentary delegation. He and his wife spoke halting English, so much of the conversation went on in Portuguese. If memory serves me right, Costa left behind a bottle of Portuguese wine for the newspaper staff. Drinking it that many years ago, we were perhaps raising a toast in advance to his political future and his appointment a fortnight ago as Portugal’s new prime minister.

Here in Goa from where his father, writer and poet Orlando da Costa, set sail for Lisbon that many years ago, and where his uncle’s family resides in Margao, there is a sense of poetic justice in Costa’s elevation to the highest post in Portugal, the country that colonised us for 451 years.

“It is a great day for us and the Goan diaspora. But it also gives us a measure of recompense after all the years of subjugation,” says the former Union law minister Ramakant Khalap. Costa, who was born in Portugal, may not see things in the same light. Yet, for a state that still often bristles at the mention of things Portuguese, ironic coincidences abound.

The new Portuguese prime minister was born in the same year that Goa was liberated from Portugal in December, 1961. Though there have been other Portuguese MPs with roots in India, Costa becomes the first non-white prime minister of the EU country that had established the first global empire in history  through colonising vast territories across the continents of Af-rica, Asia and South America.

Lisbon mayor thrice
That of course is history. What the 54-year-old Costa, who leads a broad leftist coalition including his own  Socialist Party, Bloco de Esquerda (left bloc) and the Communist/ Green alliance, faces today is the challenge of negotiating  a tricky path between his “socialist programme” that allows for “a sustainable reduction in deficits and debt” and stringent EU rules.

Former Union minister Eduardo Faleiro says Orlando da Costa, who he knew well, was a strong Communist, anti-colonial and an outspoken critic of the Portuguese dictator António de Oliveira Salazar. He believes António Costa’s charisma – he was elected mayor of Lisbon three times, with a bigger majo-rity each time and was a minister in two previous governments – stems from his Indian roots th-at also earned him the sobriquet ‘Gandhi of Lisbon’ for his simplicity and pro-poor approach.

Costa had moved his mayoral offices to Mouraria quarter, once notorious for drugs and prostitution, which he managed to turn around into a construction hub. Faleiro doesn’t expect things to run smoothly for the new prime minister in the immediate future, with the Euro 78 bn bailout agreement shadowing the new government and the EU itself in a state of flux.

Costa’s path to São Bento Palace was far from strewn with roses, drawing a raft of criticism from the media for the conservative Portuguese President Aníbal Cavaco Silva’s decision to reappoint the outgoing prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho after the October 4 election.

Though the Forward Portugal Alliance had come through with the most number of seats, it lacked a majority in parliament and Passos Coelho’s right-wing minority government survived all of 11 days, drawing the jibe from Costa that Cavaco Silva had just been “wasting time”, given that the moderate Socialists and its allies had 122 seats in Portugal’s 230-member parliament.

António Costa has vowed to stop the country “haemorrhaging young emigrants”. Portugal’s demographic meltdown has seen an estimated five lakh migrate since 2010 driven into menial jobs in London, Paris and Germany by austerity measures.

Ironically, a large number of Goans, who have in recent years acquired Portuguese nationality, have used the EU open border policy to chase greener pastures in London as well. If Costa’s government were to succeed in kickstarting the economy and reversing the current crisis, Portugal could well become the next stop.
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