As monsoon clouds hung low over Panaji on Sunday, an atmosphere of foreboding lined the faces of office-bearers walking in and out of the state Congress headquarters that overlooks the Mandovi river.
State Congress president Amit Patkar as well as All India Congress Committee in-charge of Goa Dinesh Gundu Rao could not seem to account for the party’s 11 MLAs. Some legislators appeared to have slipped away during the drive from Margao residence of former Chief Minister and disgruntled Congress MLA Digambar Kamat to the party’s office in Panaji.
But it was only when Leader of Opposition Michael Lobo, who was below the Congress office, excused himself from media persons for a loo break that all hell broke loose. Minutes later, Lobo and his wife, also a Congress MLA, were spotted at the official residence of Chief Minister Pramod Sawant.
Earlier that day, Kamat had informed Gundu Rao, that he was retired hurt because he was snubbed by the party, which did not appoint him as the Opposition leader. Kamat, the senior-most Congress legislator, had not made the journey to Panaji where the Congress was scheduled to parade its 11 MLAs. Eventually, only five MLAs made it to the media briefing. Both Lobo and Kamat were missing.
It would require eight (two thirds of the legislative strength) out of the party’s 11 MLAs to split the Congress legislative party. And the presence of five MLAs at the media event, meant that the rebels had not been able to garner enough numbers.
By Tuesday, the Congress claims that the worst of the defection crisis had blown over.
“We have evidence to show that there was a conspiracy hatched by the BJP to poach our MLAs. We acted quickly to ensure that it does not happen. The BJP may have succeeded in Maharashtra, but they could not break the Congress party in Goa,” Patkar said on Tuesday.
Former state Congress president Girish Chodankar claimed that party MLAs were being offered between “Rs. 30 to Rs. 40 crore” to defect.
Patkar also said that the party had written to the Speaker of the state legislative assembly to disqualify Kamat and Lobo for “anti-party” activity. Speaker Ramesh Tawadkar on Tuesday said that he would formally respond to the communication from the Congress party after the 10-day monsoon session of the state assembly, which began on July 11, concludes.
The Congress High Command has also dispatched its Rajya Sabha MP Mukul Wasnik to Goa to put in damage control measures. Wasnik is in Goa meeting Congress MLAs as well as party office-bearers since his arrival on Monday.
“There was a conspiracy that was hatched by some of our own leaders hobnobbing with the BJP to see that the Congress Party, which is the principal opposition party is weakened and engineer a split and defection within. So this conspiracy has been led by our leaders. One is our Leader of Opposition (Michael Lobo) and the other is Digambar Kamat," according to Rao.
The attempted defection comes on the heels of concerted attempts by the Congress party, in the run-up to the February 2022 polls, to convince voters that its MLAs would not defect again. Fifteen of the party’s 17 MLAs had switched parties between 2017 until the 2022 polls. Incidentally on the same day (July 10) in 2019, 10 Congress MLAs, led by then Opposition Leader Chandrakant Kavlekar, had split the Congress legislative party and merged into the BJP.
Kamat was at the forefront of these attempts, which involved parading MLA hopefuls to temples, chapels and dargahs, where he made them swear against defecting from the Congress or quitting the party mid-term. The former Chief Minister even read out the pledge before the deities, as other candidates echoed the oath.
Chodankar had said, “Congress MLAs have pledged before the Almighty that they will not defect. They have also signed affidavits saying they will not defect. Will they cheat God now?”
Kamat, who started his political innings as a Congress leader, joined the BJP in 1994 to be elected as an MLA and later a senior minister in a cabinet headed by former Chief Minister late Manohar Parrikar. Kamat however quit the saffron party in 2005 and became the chief minister of a Congress-led coalition in 2007. Kamat has also been on the radar of successive BJP-led governments in Goa in connection with the Rs. 35,000 crore illegal mining scam, based on the findings of a judicial commission’s report on the state’s mining sector.
Lobo has been a BJP MLA since 2012 and had joined the Congress ahead of the 2022 state assembly polls. Over the last two months, Lobo and his lawmaker wife Delilah have been accused by Town and Country Planning Minister Vishwajit Rane of illegal conversion of a series of land tracts. A First Information Report has also been lodged at the Mapusa Police Station against the husband-wife legislator duo in connection with an alleged land scam, even as Lobo has denied any wrongdoing.
“We have sacked Michael Lobo from the post of Leader of Opposition and it is also disappointing that former CM Digambar Kamat, who has been given so much by the party, is also a part of this conspiracy,” Patkar said. A new leader of the Congress legislative party is expected to be appointed soon.
Both Kamat and Lobo claim that they continue to be Congressmen.
“Just because I did not attend a press conference does not mean I am not with the party. I had myself requested the Congress leadership to replace me as the Leader of Opposition. The government has filed several cases against me and I would not be able to do justice to the post,” Lobo has now said. Lobo also said that his wife had visited the chief minister to discuss issues related to her constituency.
Kamat too claims that he is with the Congress, but continues to maintain that he is “retired hurt”.
“What is the meaning of retired hurt” A person is rendered retired hurt in cricket if he gets injured. That does not mean he is out,” Kamat said on Tuesday.
The BJP has maintained that it had nothing to do with the developments.
"It is for them to handle. No one from their party has approached me yet,” according to state BJP president Sadanand Shet Tanavade.