Assembly Elections 2017: Goa

Goa: Coastal Anxiety

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Will new players spoil the party?

WE SIT IN dull maroon plastic chairs drawn back to the walls of the room like patients at a doctor’s clinic. There is a wheeze here, a spluttering cough there. Two young men read from a single piece of paper. A woman sits with her sari hoicked and tucked between her legs. There is a sweaty man with an apostrophe of hair on his balding pate. And several more outside pacing to and fro. All of us are waiting for the man whose booming voice escapes ever so often to fill this quiet waiting room. If you follow the trail of this voice, beyond the sliding doors where an old woman on a broken walker has just disappeared, beyond the burly man scrutinising every entrant, deep in the den inside, seated on a leather chair, is the owner of that voice—Goa’s Deputy Chief Minister Francisco Casmiro Jeronimo Agnelo De Pinto E Souza or Francis D’Souza. Or, as he is most simply known here in Mapusa, Babush. The baby boy.

To reach D’Souza, you must arrive at Mapusa in Goa on any of the three days when he holds durbar. You must travel from the finger point of one man to another, climbing a hot mounting road with deep red soil on both sides, leaving the rattletrap buses and tourist bikes far behind, until you cross, first, the security gates of a complex of modern buildings, and, finally, towards the end of the road, an assortment of police and lay guards. On the ground floor is his office. And in the waiting room is a large Shivaji statue, a clock in the shape of the BJP lotus, and a large plaque gifted by residents of Mapusa. Outside on the wall is an amusing photograph. It has been zoomed in and blown up and everyone in it has been cropped out except two people. A stern D’Souza in a thick black moustache and dark aviators, and a smiling Vladimir Putin. Mapusa’s Babush and Moscow’s strongman.

D’Souza, 61, is incredibly popular both in Mapusa and the rank and file of the state’s BJP unit. He has been an anomaly in the state’s voting patterns, winning his constituency with huge margins for many years. Back in 2012, he had a victory margin of more than 10,000 votes, more than anyone else in the entire state. “Everyone tells me it will be 15,000 or maybe even 18,000 this time,” he says. D’Souza created a storm in 2014 when he said all of India is a Hindu nation and that he was a Christian-Hindu. Later that year, he briefly threatened to quit the cabinet when he was overlooked for the Chief Minister’s post after Manohar Parrikar moved to Delhi. If the BJP comes to power again, D’Souza will be among the frontrunners. “It can be anyone really,” he says today. “It can be someone from Delhi, or anyone from here.”

“Twenty-five, 26.” D’Souza sits deep in his reclining chair, examining the cuticles of his fingers as he uses them to draw the figure in the air. “We will win 25-26 seats. We will trounce everyone.”

It is a statement you hear again and again in Goa. From leaders of the BJP or Congress, or the new entrant Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), and even some of the regional parties. Leaders stand on small garish podiums and shout into microphones of ‘the people’ telling them they will win an absolute majority. Twenty, 25, 26, is something you hear from every loudspeaker, but not from voters in Goa. The wisdom of the street seems to suggest that this time absolutely anything can happen.

THE PARTIES HAVE long wrapped up. The ships that sail into the revelry of Goa’s luminescent night have long returned. There are still tourists around, thronging the beaches and shacks, but the numbers are dipping. It is hot and humid. And in a few weeks, most of them will have disappeared altogether. The scene will instead move inwards, as the February 4th polls near, with men and women leading small rallies in lanes, candidates knocking on doors they otherwise rarely do.

With a population of under 1.5 million and just 40 Assembly seats, Goa is a small state. As visiting journalists like to say, it is akin to a municipal election in Mumbai or Delhi. Perhaps even smaller. But the intimacy this affords—where everybody knows everybody—also makes the narrative particularly interesting.

Victory margins are especially narrow here. A few hundred can swing a seat one way or another. Getting a rival’s votes eaten by bit players is a big game. Politicians are known to field and back a number of independent candidates to defeat a more popular opponent. Sometimes people with similar names to such a rival are found and made to stand for election simply to confuse voters. And winning just one or two seats can enable a party to play the role of kingmaker in the government. And then there are the behind-the-scenes deals and fake posturing. Five years ago, when the Fatorda MLA, Vijay Sardesai, was denied a Congress ticket, he successfully contested as an independent. He became the mentor of a new party last year, the Goa Forward Party, whose stated aim— among others—was to provide a regional alternative to national parties, only to attempt forging an alliance with the Congress this time. The proposed tie-up has now come undone spectacularly, with both parties exchanging insults.

Francisco Xavier Pacheco or Mickky, another popular face here, who has flitted between regional parties to BJP to NCP, has now quit the very party he headed, Goa Vikas Party, to join another one, Goa Su-Raj Party. Churchill Alemo, the hulking six-foot something former Chief Minister with a Robin Hood image, whose career includes stints at several regional parties and the Congress, is in the fray as an NCP candidate. Goa is filled with candidates like these, moving through the revolving doors of political parties, forming parties, fancying themselves as independents. A total of 405 candidates filed their nominations, reduced to 250 after withdrawals and eliminations. This is way more than the 202 candidates of five years ago. In one constituency, Velim, there are more than 12 would-be-MLAs in the fray. Several are fighting for seats they have no chance of winning. For this election is not just about the hope of winning a seat, but an intense desire to upset someone else’s chances.

Subhash Velingkar flits from one room to another in his spartan residence in Panjim city, either carrying a tray of glasses with drinking water or looking for his cellphone. An English-speaking saadhu with a wise white beard and only a saffron garment wrapped around his waist smiles beatifically from a room inside. Velingkar has the appearance of a mid-level bureaucrat. Bespectacled, grey hair parted carefully, and dressed in an ironed shirt and trousers, with a blue pen sneaking out of his shirt pocket.

A lifelong member of the RSS and its former chief in Goa, Velingkar has managed to cobble what he has sought since late last year—an anti-BJP saffron alliance.

His chief complaint is that the BJP has gone soft. And that, in ideology, it has become the very party it displaced at the Centre—the Congress. “The BJP is backing out from everything it represented,” Velingkar says. “It has become a party of U-turns.”

Velingkar, 68, a retired headmaster who moved up the RSS ranks as a boy in his early teens to eventually become its state chief, was expelled from the organisation last year—after 55 years in it. He came into prominence as the head of the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch, leading protests demanding the mother tongue Konkani to be made the medium of instruction in Goa’s government primary schools, and against the old Congress government’s decision to provide grants to English-medium schools. During the 2012 election campaign, BJP leaders had promised to stop these grants. And the RSS had supported the party. But after coming to power, the BJP did not keep its commitment. As compensation, it has instead begun providing grants to non-English- medium primary schools.

Last year, during a BJP convention addressed by party president Amit Shah, when Velingkar was still the RSS Goa chief, he led a group of vocal black flag-waving protestors. “I continued to protest against the policy even when the BJP came to power. And soon I began to get messages from higher ups: to protest, but not to take names like [Manohar] Parrikar or other big leaders,” Velingkar says. “It was so convenient, you see. Protest when it suits you. Don’t when it doesn’t. I didn’t listen. So they threw me out.”

Velingkar formed a new political party, Goa Suraksha Manch, last year. By bringing on board the Shiv Sena, and weaning away the BJP’s ally Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), Velingkar has managed to put together a new saffron alliance.

It is said this alliance and the prospect of Hindu votes getting split has made the BJP fearful. “Everyone talks about how Catholics voted in favour of the BJP in 2012 and brought them to power,” Velingkar says. “But the truth is, it was more the Hindu resurgence vote than anything that brought BJP to power. This time, this vote is split and will come to us.”

For all his time in the public spotlight, Velingkar gives the appearance of an idealist. A pracharak gone rogue. But a disciplined and idealistic one nonetheless. The motivation of the MGP, whose leader Sudin Dhavalikar has been projected as the alliance’s chief ministerial candidate, is more suspect. The MGP has been in alliance with both the Congress and BJP when they formed governments. D’Souza claims the whole idea is to negotiate plum cabinet posts later. “They are just hoping to win four-five seats and then bargain with us for cabinet posts,” he says.

“We are committed,” Velingkar says. “We are not going to form an alliance. We are going to stop those grants.”

As divided as the BJP’s vote share is going to be, the opposition is no less splintered. The Congress, after initially announcing an understanding with the Goa Forward Party (GFP), where it would contest in 36 constituencies, leaving four for others including the GFP, hours later, strangely, fielded a Congress candidate for the very constituency, Fatorda, where the GFP’s mentor Sardesai announced his candidacy. According to a Congress worker, this public unravelling is likely to hurt the party’s prospects, along with the image that the Congress has not quite been able to revive itself. Both state Congress chief Luizinho Faleiro and senior leader Pratapsingh Rane did not respond to interview requests. During the last elections, a major focus of the BJP’s campaign was the large number of tickets being awarded to family members. This time too, there are several in the fray. There is a father-son duo—Rane and his son Vishwajit, a couple—Chandrakant Kavalekar and his wife Savitri, and the Monserrates—Jennifer from Taleigao, her Congress-backed independent candidate husband Atanasio, and Atanasio’s close aide Francisco Silveria on a Congress ticket.

AAP’s entry to Goa, as the belief goes, is going to benefit the BJP. Catholic votes that usually go with the Congress are likely to be split between this party and AAP. Congress leaders have gone on to suggest the AAP has been deployed by the BJP to split opposition votes. The party has fielded a host of unlikely politicians as candidates, from activists, bureaucrats, and professionals, to even a reality TV star and a fitness trainer.

WE STAND IN Shiroda Bazaar. Deep in the northern lands of the state, behind lush green forests and paddy fields, Shiroda is nothing like the Goa of the tourist brochure. There are no travellers here, no cheap bikes on hire. A place filled with Tribals and Konkani speakers, it could be any place in a hardy Maharashtra town. Amidst them are a host of AAP workers, many of them having descended from Mumbai and Delhi, some even from foreign countries, helping set up things, distributing AAP topis, clicking photos and making video messages. “We’re going to do a Delhi in Goa,” says one such volunteer from Mumbai.

The leaders descend late into the night, first the small fries, then, later, the party’s chief ministerial candidate, the former bureaucrat Elvis Gomes, and lastly, the star campaigner, Arvind Kejriwal. Each one of them tries to make the point that neither the Congress nor BJP can offer Goa the alternative it can.

An undercurrent of anxiety runs through the coastal state. Driving along snaking roads, a local driver looks out through the window to speak his mind. “Goa is not what it was,” he says and settles into deep contemplation.

Why isn’t Goa great anymore? “Twenty years ago, Goa was such a beautiful place. What do you see now?” Raju Mangeshkar, a lawyer and trade union leader, says by way of an answer: “In five years, it will be tough seeing a Goan in Goa.”

Every year, hordes and hordes of people visit this small state. Many even stay back. But with this influx and growth in commerce has come the fear of getting locked out from their own state. “Goa is not what you see on the beaches. It is not parties, drugs and booze,” Velingkar says. “Real Goa resides deeper in the villages.”

According to Mangeshkar, with every passing day, locals are losing out. “Hotels, properties, land, offices—even contracts for food and catering, and now even transport. Everything is owned and controlled by outsiders,” he says. “There are villages where locals are going without drinking water or electricity, so that it can be supplied to hotels. Locals take hours to reach their homes because of tourist traffic. So if locals aren’t really benefitting from tourism, why should they suffer its problems?” Cecile Rodrigues, a reality TV contestant who is contesting on an AAP ticket, says, “There are no jobs here. And local needs are always sacrificed for others. We need to come together and fix this mess.”

Tourism has brought in its wake, much to the local ire, casinos. The BJP government had promised to do away with them, but now claims they’re needed for the revenues they generate. Several other parties, from the Congress to AAP, have offered to get rid of them. “Tourists come to these casinos, have a good time, and go away. But for the locals, it is always here,” says Sabina Martins, a school teacher and an activist. According to Martins, there have been several cases where upper middle-class folk have sold or taken loans against their properties to repay debts racked up by gambling. “Casinos aren’t permitted elsewhere in India, so why here?” she asks.

What role the church will play in this election has come under much speculation. According to Velingkar, in 2012 the church backed Parrikar in lieu of five seats for non-BJP Catholics. Late last year, the Archbishop’s representative was seen meeting Nitin Gadkari at a hotel. “By all appearances, there seems to be some understanding between BJP and the church this time too,” Velingkar says.

Among other things, this election is also a prestige issue for Parrikar. His image looms large across the state. Leaders and commoners speak with either reverence or vitriol for him. Many point to the several bridges, roads and construction projects, apart from social welfare projects, to point out why the BJP is likely to emerge as the single-largest party in the Assembly.

Mangeshkar is more despondent. “This election drama will go on for some time. Somebody or the other will come. They will do some work, they will eat some [money],” he says. “Everything will go back to how they are. They always do.”