Friday, Sep 30, 2022

Goa And The Story Of Never-ending Political Musical Chairs

Goa’s reputation as a hard partying destination is matched only by party-hopping of its politicians

An Alexyz Fernandes limertoon: There are Goan MLAs quite sinister. Who create more than a mini stir. They care a damn in fact. How often they defect. As long as they get to be a Minister !!!

Earlier this month, Congress lawmakers in Goa came perilously close to reneging on their anti-defection oath pledged before the gods before the February assembly polls. The latest coup planned by some party MLAs came a cropper after the Congress leadership acted early. Party leaders also repeatedly reminded the MLAs, who were enroute to the BJP, about their pre-poll promise against defection made before Hindu, Catholic and Muslim deities during the election campaign.

Back in 1970, an era before Goan politics became synonymous with defection and legislators donned the role of slithery architects of unstable governments, the mere wrath of a Spanish saint, St. Francis Xavier, had even deterred a set of defectors from the United Goans party from contesting the subsequent elections.

In Goa’s political primer, the decade between 1990-2000 represents the peak of legislative hustling. The decade witnessed mostly abridged reigns of 13 chief ministers, some of them, like Ravi Naik and Churchill Alemao, lasting just six days and 18 days, respectively, in the top chair. But the country’s smallest state had its first brush with political defection in the 1960-70s, when Goa was still a Union Territory.

A Portuguese colony till 1961, Goa had just joined the vast network of states and territories administered by the Indian Union, where defections were already trending.

Between 1957-67, the country saw 542 members of Parliament and members of legislative parties switch political allegiances. In the four years between 1967-71, there were as many as 142 defections reported in Parliament, while 1,969 MLAs crossed over to other political parties in state assemblies across the nation.

Goa, which was still new to the numbers game in an electoral democracy, caught up to the trend in the late 1960s. The grand backdrop for the split in the United Goans Party (UGP), then a major opposition, was the historic ‘opinion poll’, India’s first and only referendum. It offered an opportunity to the natives of India’s newly-acquired territory to either merge with Goa or retain its own independent identity as a Union Territory.

Goa’s first defection

The liberation of Goa from Portuguese rule saw the state’s political cake divided into two halves. The ruling Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) headed the first democratically-elected government in Goa under the leadership of Chief Minister Dayanand Bandodkar. But like its name suggests, the party’s key ideology was the merger of Goa into the neighbouring state of Maharashtra and formalising Marathi as the state’s official language.

Show of unity AICC Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao, GPCC president Amit Patkar and other Congress lea
Show of unity AICC Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao, GPCC president Amit Patkar and other Congress leaders following the recent crisis in the state unit of the party. Photo: PTI

With the Congress, a party which played a crucial role in the freedom movement against Portuguese colonists, getting a drubbing in the 1963 assembly polls—independent Goa’s first assembly election—the MGP’s key opponent was the UGP, which backed Konkani as the state’s official language and was against the merger articulated by the MGP. While the MGP was largely supported by Hindus, especially the Bhandari samaj—a broad social group of non-Brahmin castes in Goa—the UGP’s strength lay in the state’s Catholic population.

Goa’s first round of defections occurred in 1966 in the UGP, headed by then leader of Opposition Dr. Jack de Sequeira, over the finalisation of the terms of the referendum. The UGP, which had 12 MLAs in the 30-member state assembly, split vertically, with six MLAs led by Dr. Alvaro de Loyola Furtado, who formed the UGP (Furtado group). According to contemporary historian Valmiki Faleiro, members of the Furtado group were incensed by the fact that Sequeira, who had been taken into confidence by the central Congress leadership to discuss the nitty-gritty of the referendum, had failed to negotiate an option that would have allowed Goa to become an independent state.

“Party MLAs back home rebelled against Dr Sequeira’s unilateral decision. They argued that a golden chance to secure Goa’s future as a separate state had been squandered. A poll victory would now mean Goa’s mere continuation as a centrally administered Territory, not an independent State,” Faleiro wrote in 2017. Despite the split, however, the rebel UGP group worked with the mother party in the run-up to the referendum, canvassing support for retaining Goa’s independent space in the Union of states and territories, rather than merging it with Maharashtra. In the referendum held on January 16, 1967, the motion to join Maharashtra was defeated by Goan voters.

Dayanand Bandodkar
Trouble started brewing for Dayanand Bandodkar when an MGP MLA Dattaram Chopdekar tabled a private member bill proposing Marathi as the state’s official language.

Elections were declared in Goa soon after the referendum. The UGP, which had just successfully defeated the MGP’s merger pitch, was expected to win the polls. But it was the MGP which came to power in 1967. The footnote of those assembly polls was not just the loss of the UGP. Not a single contestant who was part of the rebellion against Sequeira managed to secure a seat.

The second split

Dayanand Bandodkar’s victory in the 1967 assembly polls came against adversity. His party, the MGP, had lost the referendum held a few months earlier. But when the assembly election votes were eventually counted, Bandodkar’s MGP had emerged victorious by bagging 16 seats. UGP (Sequeira group) could secure just 12. Two nominated MLAs accounted for the two remaining seats in the 30-member assembly. Goa’s assembly strength rose to 40 much later when the state attained statehood in 1987.

But the victory against immense odds did not put an end to Bandodkar’s political hurdles. There was another one coming, this time from his side of the fence.

According to senior journalist Gurudas Sawal, trouble started brewing for Bandodkar when an MGP MLA Dattaram Chopdekar tabled a private member bill proposing Marathi as the state’s official language. Marathi had the backing of the ruling MGP, but had not been formally endorsed as the state’s official language.

After having suffered the rigours of a defeated referendum campaign, Sawal said that Bandodkar strategically facilitated the defeat of the bill on the assembly floor. The defeat of the bill incensed some of the MGP MLAs, who were incidentally also piqued by the sheer domination of the MGP by Bandodkar.

Dr. Jack de Sequeira
Goa’s first round of defections occurred in 1966 in the UGP, headed by then Leader of Opposition Dr. Jack de Sequeira, over the finalisation of the terms of the referendum.

This time, MGP’s K.B. Naik, a well-known Bhandari samaj leader, led the rebellion in 1970 against his chief minister. “Naik split the MGP along with six other MLAs. The objective was to dislodge Bandodkar because Naik wanted to be chief minister,” Sawal tells Outlook. The rebels who broke away formed a new party, the Nava-MGP. The internal fissures of defection had already damaged the prospects of the UGP in the 1967 elections, which was relegated to the opposition benches. And now Naik’s rebellion threatened the tenure of the MGP government.

While Naik wanted to be CM, Faleiro argues that the rebels did not want to dislodge the MGP itself from power. They just wanted Bandodkar to step aside as chief minister. “Technically, though, the government was still in majority: the seven breakaway MLAs had intimated their decision to neither the Lt. Governor nor the Assembly Speaker. This was because the K.B. Naik-led rebel group did not want the MGP to lose power. Their one-point agenda was to oust Bandodkar. They reckoned that once they withdrew support, Bandodkar would resign. They would then join the MGP and elect a new CM,” Faleiro claims. But Bandodkar stuck on. He had a plan ready.

The third split

As hectic parleys went on between the Bandodkar camp and the MGP rebels, the former was already looking for another crutch to steady his innings in power. And the chief minister eventually found the support he was looking for in an enemy camp, the UGP. Catching the rebels by surprise, Bandodkar raided the UGP’s legislative larder, managing to wean away five MLAs from the 12-member UGP. This raid secured Bandodkar a wide enough numerical buffer to survive his chief ministerial term.

The story of early defections in Goa has lessons for the state and its people today, a time where defectors tend to find it not too difficult to get elected in polls soon after they switchover. Not a single legislator from the first two rounds of defections, either from the UGP (Furtado group) or the Nava-MGP, could win the subsequent election.

The third group of rebel MLAs who quit the UGP to support Bandodkar were even hesitant to contest polls because of a freak urban legend which was attached to the political aura of the party’s patriarch Dr. Jack de Sequeira.

“Around that time, the Sequeira-led UGP’s symbol was the ‘hand’. And there was a belief that the hand in Sequeira’s party symbol was the hand of St. Francis Xavier himself. This deterred them from going to the people against the Sequeira faction,” according to political commentator Cleofato Coutinho. Xavier is a Catholic saint of Spanish origin, who is widely regarded as the ‘patron saint of Goa’ and whose remains are interred at the historic Old Goa Church complex near Panaji.

(This appeared in the print edition as "Musical Chairs")