In strongman Parrikar’s absence, Goa politics in chaos

In strongman Parrikar’s absence, Goa politics in chaos

Parrikar is credited with single-handedly changing the face of Goa’s politics since he entered in the mid-1990s. He managed to virtually rewrite political equations, change caste and community polarisations, and bring the BJP to power in the state. PTI file photo

To his fans, Manohar Parrikar is Goa’s only hope, the man who has long been expected to change politics in India’s smallest state. To his critics, the 62-year-old IIT-ian has run a one-man government which stymied the growth of other BJP politicians. To everyone, the four-term chief minister is undeniably seriously ill for over three months now.

More than the official paralysis in governance, it is the political uncertainty which is taking its toll on Goa. Attempts to keep a lid on the nature of the chief minister’s illness are less strenuous than earlier. But the BJP has voiced only optimism over Parrikar’s health and eager efforts were made to get Parrikar to talk via recorded video messages to local citizens (before leaving for treatment to the US in early March) and to party workers (when BJP president Amit Shah visited Goa in mid-May).

Parrikar (b. 1955) is credited with single-handedly changing the face of Goa’s politics since he entered in the mid-1990s. He managed to virtually rewrite political equations, change caste and community polarisations, and bring the BJP to power in the state.

The image-conscious, hardworking and ambitious politician with roots in the RSS has a larger-than-life reflection in Goa and outside. He was India’s defence minister before returning to Panjim in 2017 to prop up the BJP’s flagging fortunes which clearly suffered in his absence. But being so high-profile comes at a price. The BJP lacks a second-line leadership. Some speculation is that it might sheep-steal some more Congress leaders.

Parrikar himself did not nominate any acting chief minister; before going to the US, he instead named a three-man ‘Cabinet advisory committee’. It comprises long-time party-hopping MLA and now the seniormost in the BJP (Francis D’Souza), and two representatives of the party’s MGP and Goa Forward allies.

Parrikar’s ill-health was first reported in mid-February as stomach pain, and then mild pancreatitis. Even as he was undergoing treatment by Dr P Jagannath, one of the top surgical oncologists in Mumbai, a journalist faced action for terming the illness as a serious case of pancreatic cancer. More recently, however, the media has mentioned the prominent cancer care centre Sloan Kettering in NYC as the Parrikar’s place of treatment.

In a state where the Assembly has only 40 seats, every legislator counts, and margins in the House can be wafer thin, the BJP has been rather unlucky with health issues. Former No 2 local BJP leader, Matanhy Saldanha, a fishworkers’ and environmental campaigner, whose support to the BJP played a crucial role in its rise to power, died a few days after the party came to power in 2012. Its deputy speaker Vishnu Wagh, though in his early 50s, has been bed-ridden since shortly before he was expected to contest the 2017 elections.

Parrikar, who belongs to the small and influential Gaud Saraswat Brahmin community, is rightly credited with drastically changing the BJP’s fortunes after the 1994 elections. He is seen as having stymied the anti-Brahmin tone in Goa’s politics that came up since the 1960s, and building a somewhat tense alliance (helped by the late Pramod Mahajan) that enabled former MGP voters to back the BJP. At one stage, the BJP was seen as such a potent force here, that quite a few senior Congress leaders themselves walked into that party. Many have since moved out.

Changing fortunes

The importance of being Mr Parrikar is obvious at other levels. For instance, the role he played in supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi, including at some Goa party conclaves, when the latter was on the backfoot over his Gujarat record. Parrikar was also critical of Advani, and his comments at a critical time made the ascent of Modi a bit easier. The prime minister subsequently named him as his defence minister, and also visited an ailing Parrikar in a Mumbai hospital.

The BJP’s lack of local leaders can be seen as partly due to the uncertainties of elections results here. But the party has also had to make compromises with some controversial individuals to stay in power here.

The BJP-MGP-Goa Forward alliance is precariously perched, with the three parties’ political interests (and ambitions) often pulling in different directions. For example, the influential Rane clan (which has held sway over Goa since Portuguese times) sees a father-son duo conveniently split between Congress and BJP.

Goa’s politics is primarily made up of local issues and concerns masked under national party labels. This often makes any analysis of local politics seem confusing and bizarre to the outside world. The Congress, long unable to play the role of an effective Opposition, has also ceded ground to the social media and individual campaigners to critique the government.

In one case, a former candidate who contested against Parrikar, Kenneth Silveira (35) was arrested. Initially, reports suggested he was facing action for falsely announcing the chief minister’s death, but Silveira shared documents to suggest this was because of RTI queries he had raised about Parrikar’s treatment.

Tiny Goa, a district-sized state since 1987, has seldom got so much media attention of a questionable kind. First, it was the BJP’s unexpected (to the outside world, but not locally) sometimes-on, sometimes-off ascent to power since 1999. In 2017 was the BJP’s unexpected (again, not locally) mauling at the polls, followed by its dubious ascent to power.

Ironically, the Goa precedent was constantly raked up in the context of government formation in Karnataka, because of the very different approaches adopted in the two cases. The political instability of the 1990s gave way to stability for nearly two decades, though it was often achieved through contentious means.

Lacking the decisiveness of strongman Parrikar, caught up in diverse pulls within the government, and an ineffective Opposition, citizens have been agitated over issues relating to land-scams, mining, environment, jobs and huge expenses over government projects.

(The writer is a senior journalist based in Goa)