On January 16, the contortions in Goa’s poll-bound politics achieved another lowlight when Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenço resigned from the Trinamool Congress, and signalled his intentions to return to the Congress, where he had been working president less than a month ago. The widely popular 52-year-old MLA from Curtorim in South Goa had been the most significant defector from the Congress, which won 17 seats in the 2017 state elections—the largest share of any party in the 40-seat legislature—but then suffered waves of abandonment that dwindled its strength down to just three MLAs.
Lourenço’s now-aborted departure was especially painful. Former chief minister Digambar Kamat—who himself previously hopped from Congress to BJP and back—lashed out, “It is like when you have a son in the family who is a drug addict and does not give up his addiction. In such a situation, the blame does not lie with the family. His going has been a blessing in disguise.” Now, after the newly-minted TMC man reversed direction, saying that his constituents refused to accept the party they believe is purposefully dividing the secular vote, Kamat remained disdainful: “Reginaldo’s decisions are childish behaviour. Our leaders in Delhi will decide whether to re-admit him.”
Lourenço’s latest bombshell followed—and is connected to—another sensational defection that galvanised the Congress with a month to go before the assembly polls on February 14. This was the noisy arrival of Michael Lobo, the MLA from Calangute, who decamped from the BJP with the promise to influence several seats in North Goa to go his way. It is not an idle threat. Lobo is notoriously effective at back-room scheming, and credited with engineering the mass defection of 10 Congress MLAs in 2019 that gave this current BJP government its majority, and also helped to create the counterintuitive scenario of 15 Catholics as the Hindutva party’s backbone in Goa. Now he tweeted an open invitation: “To boost our purpose of forming Congress government in 2022 in Goa, I request Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco to join us back (sic).”
Entertaining as these shenanigans are, they also illustrate an increasingly worrisome political landscape. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms, in the last five years alone, an astonishing 27 out of 40 state legislators in Goa switched parties. That’s 67 per cent. State coordinator for ADR, Bhasker Assoldekar, says this unique record “has never happened anywhere else in India. [It is] a clear reflection of the utter disrespect to the mandate of voters. A callous approach to ethics and discipline overborne by uncontrolled greed at its worst.”
To be sure, all blame does not reside with BJP and Congress alone. What is happening in Goa reflects the pandemic-times trend of political paradigms being comprehensively recast by unprecedented voter dissatisfaction. India’s smallest state is the first case where aspirant newcomers like AAP and TMC have charged in with no holds barred, which also makes it an important cautionary tale about what ensues after all principles are abandoned in the pursuit for power. Here, in just a few weeks, every party has disgraced itself by making a mockery of their own stated platforms and ideals.
Some of this pandering was predictable, like the beleaguered chief minister Pramod Sawant’s abrupt turn to majoritarianism, with statements like, “In the 60th year of Liberation, we want to start rebuilding the temples that the Portuguese destroyed. I ask you to give us the strength to rebuild these temples.” But there have been many other unexpected developments, like Arvind Kejriwal’s gratuitous pledge to send all Goan voters on “a free pilgrimage” to Ayodhya, Shirdi, Ajmer or Vailankanni. AAP has been active in Goa for years, but never won any representation. This time, the party has flooded in resources and poached a slew of candidates to fill out their roster. In the mix are some undoubtedly excellent choices, as well as many bizarre bedfellows. It is impossible to figure out, for example, why this self-proclaimed “honest alternative” has embraced Dayanand Narvekar, the former deputy chief minister of Goa who has been repeatedly censured for corruption, including when the 2012 Justice Pendse Commission said, “He observed every rule in its breach, and treated the funds of the Goa Cricket Association as his private property.”
On January 17, yet another bizarre twist occurred when Kejriwal issued a thunderclap invitation to Utpal Parrikar, the eldest son of the late chief minister Manohar Parrikar, who was one of the BJP’s greatest stalwarts before dying in office in 2019: “If he wants to come then we will definitely take him. Zaroor hoga.” But even if that does come about, and the second-generation RSS loyalist defies expectations to join the AAP, it still won’t be the most mind-boggling occurrence of this Goa elections season. This is because all the prizes in that category have long been won by the TMC.
What has Mamata’s party not done since roller-coastering into town four months ago? It has snapped up legislators, promoted some interesting new candidates, kept on barnstorming the state with an eclectic—one could also call it eccentric—mix of spokespersons ranging from tennis great Leander Paes to retired bureaucrat Jawhar Sircar, unleashed an army of unnervingly caffeinated operatives from Prashant Kishor’s vaunted Indian Political Action Committee, and blanketed every visible quadrant with political advertising that makes “Didi” by far the most ubiquitous face in Goa.
All that frenetic energy and activity is a bit misleading, however. Though party leaders like Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra, who is in charge of the Goa campaign, have creditably broadened the public debate to include issues like intergenerational equity in mining, which other parties have historically colluded to keep off the table permanently, the TMC has also cobbled together an egregious collection of the state’s hoariest old guard: 72-year-old Churchill Alemao, 70-year-old Luizinho Faleiro, and 65-year-old Sudin Dhavalikar. The latter’s inclusion is especially baffling. Mamata Banerjee’s party represents itself as the last best hope to stave away communalism in the country, yet here it has aligned with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party run by the Dhavalikar brothers, who are the godfathers for the Sanatan Sanstha, an extremist cult headquartered in Ponda and accused of fostering the murderers of writers-thinkers Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh. One wonders how the likes of Moitra can defend that record, or statements by Sudin Dhavalikar like “young girls going to pubs in short dresses is not our culture” and “for their own protection on public beaches, women should not wear bikinis”.
What’s at stake in this inconsequentially tiny state that is motivating the country’s most powerful political forces to turn somersaults on their own stated ideals? The answer lies in opportunity cost, the microeconomic theory that aims to explain and ensure the efficient use of scarce resources. It has long been clear that AAP and TMC have broad ambitions to extend beyond their current strongholds in New Delhi and West Bengal. In Goa, they sense an opportunity to grab seats without the same kind of expense and effort required in bigger states. Similarly, after being in non-stop retreat almost everywhere else in the country, the Congress sees the chance to claw back respectability in a state it actually won the last time around.
The crucial factor to all these ambitious plans, of course, is a glaring vulnerability in the party that has dominated Goa politics for the past 10 years. An era that began with great promise—and a historic sweep of the polls that presaged the Modi wave in national politics—under Manohar Parrikar in 2012 is ending in conspicuous tatters under his hapless successor, Pramod Sawant. In between, Goans have suffered an alarmingly precipitous decline of their famously enviable quality of life, with the final straw being the state government’s exceptionally horrific bungling of the Covid crisis.
It is certainly true that no place in the world—let alone India—has managed the pandemic as smooth sailing. But even then, what happened in Goa stands out for sheer carelessness and incompetence, where thousands died after infection rates climbed to the highest in the country—and at one point in 2021, the highest in the world—but Sawant refused to enforce what was required to keep the public safe. One of the lowest points occurred last May, when hundreds died due to abysmal night-hours mismanagement of oxygen supply in the state’s main Covid treatment facility at the Goa Medical College, while the chief minister and his health minister Vishwajeet Rane wasted time trading accusations. After trying to wade in and solve the crisis, and being thwarted by sheer government inertia, the state high court was moved to issue an extraordinary apology: “We are very sorry. We have failed collectively.”
Photograph: Chinki Sinha
Later, another very public rebuke came from the BJP’s own appointee, Governor Satya Pal Malik—he was later shifted to Meghalaya—who told the media, “There was corruption in everything the Goa government did [in its] mishandling of Covid. I probed the matter and informed the Prime Minister about it. But they asked the same people who were behind [the corruption] about the allegation. [Obviously] they won’t accept that they are in the wrong. I was removed for my allegation of corruption against the Goa government.”
Kleptocratic malfeasance on a grand scale is certainly not exclusive to Goa. But the main difference here is that the state political cadre—taking its lead from the swashbuckling Parrikar himself—has become accustomed to ignoring voters’ concerns to a degree that is not readily apparent in other parts of the country. It may be related to the fact that so many have gotten away with switching between ostensibly contradictory parties and ideologies, but it’s amply clear that an entire generation of politicians now believes it can strong-arm elections, and then proceed to do exactly what they want.
Entirely predictably, the absence of any kind of accountability has resulted in an outright debacle. Every kind of illegality abounds, in an unchecked tsunami of concretisation that has brought Goa’s fragile ecological balance to its tipping point. Here, the worst offender by far is the government itself, with its endless parade of ill-conceived and abysmally executed big money projects: an absurd land-grabbing “second airport” project, the incredibly inappropriate web of giant superhighways that has destroyed some of the most fertile agricultural land in the world, even an eye-wateringly expensive bridge-cum-viewing-tower on the Zuari that Nitin Gadkari ludicrously claims will rival the Eiffel Tower as an international tourist attraction.
Meanwhile, as if the Goa government’s utter carelessness with their health wasn’t enough, citizens have found themselves burdened with an additional overwhelming anxiety during the pandemic. This is demographic displacement, which has ramped up dramatically after the first nationwide lockdown was lifted in June 2020. Ever since that juncture, the state has seen an unstoppable—indeed uncontrollable—demand from the rest of India that is positively scary. Real estate prices are at an all-time high. Room rates have rocketed to new records. Earlier this month, even after Omicron striking hard, Dabolim Airport registered its highest number of flights ever, with more than 200 arrivals and departures in under 24 hours.
Those are not abstract numbers. They produce cascading deleterious effects on the environment, public health, safety, social harmony, and cultural wellbeing. With no limits in place, Goa is being very rapidly pushed to breaking point, and there is no prospect of redressal or relief from the state’s own sworn representatives. Here, we must note that the government’s cruel abandonment of responsibility is nothing new. It has been the pattern in Goa throughout the Parrikar era, as the high court of Bombay noted ruefully in its 2018 rejection of the government’s appeal to restart mining: “We are surprised at the vehemence at which the State has asserted the right of the mining lease holders. We got a feeling that the dividing line was blurred. A neutral, balanced and measured response by the State would have been more appropriate and commensurate with its role. This sharp contrast in the State response in respect of these two ends of the mining spectrum, the Mining Affected and the Mining Beneficiaries, is too stark for us not to notice. We write it here because it pains our conscience.”
Cut directly to the chase in Goa’s intensely-contested political circus, says veteran editor Sandesh Prabhudesai, and you will find the real battle is about land. He sums up this contention nicely in his vivid, engaging new book, Ajeeb Goa’s Gajab Politics: Goa Elections: A Perspective: “Whether it was the revolutionary Assembly election of 1963 or the historic Opinion Poll of 1967, it was a battle for land. The land you cultivate, the land on which you have built a house, or the whole land of Goa you belong to.” Via email, Prabhudesai elaborates, “The Goa assembly is getting overcrowded with land dealers. Today, the most influential candidates, who are throwing money around for their self-promotion, are land dealers; either builders, real estate agents or land brokers. They belong to all the parties, thus there is no debate held in the assembly over the rampant conversions of agricultural land going on all across Goa. This is leading to illegal land deals, illegal tourism, illegal mining and even the so-called ‘public interest’ projects like the airport are aimed at buying land.”
Prabhudesai believes identical motivations underlie the tumultuous 2022 political scene in his home state, saying, “We all know that right since 1990, politics of Goa has been moving around land conversions and building illegal structures in violation of all kinds of laws. The land sharks are ruling Goa today and politicians belonging to all the parties are involved in it. In this light, Goan voters need to find out who these new political parties belong to. Are they genuine or the agents of land sharks from all over India? Why are these political parties pouring crores of rupees on a small assembly election of a tiny state of 10 lakh voters? What is the ‘Business of Politics’ involved in it?”
(This appeared in the print edition as "The Good, the Bad, and the Bizzare")
(Views expressed are personal)
Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer, and co-founder of the goa Arts+literary festival