One of the most farcical episodes in Indian electoral history occurred in 2019 when elections to the Panaji seat—left vacant by Manohar Parrikar, the late defence minister and all-time favourite of Narendra Modi—were taking place in Goa.
Though the BJP had comfortably retained the state capital for a solid quarter century, it had rendered itself vulnerable by spurning the ambitions of Utpal Parrikar, the late minister’s son. Instead, it chose Sidharth Kuncalienker, who was senior Parrikar’s long-time aide, and considered by most Goans to be the primary culprit in tarnishing the legacy of his former boss.
Pitted against this notably unpopular campaigner was Atanasio ‘Babush’ Monserrate, the strongman of neighbouring Taleigao, who had joined the Congress after a whistle-stop career—four other parties in three different constituencies. Though he was already in control of the city municipality—where his son Rohit is the mayor—Babush had never been able to shake Parrikar’s stranglehold. But now, sensing his opportunity, he proceeded to galvanise the elections by tapping into the issue on which the people’s will has been stubbornly thwarted for an entire generation: “I promise to remove the casinos from the Mandovi River within the first 100 days of taking office.”
Bedlam ensued, as every other candidate recognised the winning factor. AAP candidate Valmiki Naik had made a similar pledge, but now the Congress made it their main plank, with state chief Girish Chodankar promising that “Babush has given his word, and we will do exactly as he says. Our manifesto is a holy book for us, and not something to only seek votes”. Then, former RSS leader Subhash Velingkar (who had been Manohar Parrikar’s mentor before falling out) of Goa Suraksha Manch also promised a casino-mukt Panjim: “They have destroyed the city with their presence, and with the ethical and social ills they propagate. I promise to do away with them. They have not only disturbed society and the culture of the state, but have also polluted the Mandovi with their waste. We will send them into the deep sea.”
Faced with this unanimity and evidently limitless public antipathy about casinos, the ruling BJP now added its own surreal twist. In an astonishing volte-face—considering its own government had held an unshakable sway in Goa for an entire legislative term, and also controlled the crucial Panjim seat for 25 years—the BJP switched gears. The state unit president and Rajya Sabha member, Vinay Tendulkar, lectured a bemused public that “the party’s demand is that offshore casinos should be shut. If people don’t want onshore casinos, which function from five-star hotels, they too will be closed. We have been assured that the government is thinking about it and when the time comes, we will the shut down the casinos”.
In this rare moment of political consensus on banning casinos, one colourful character was totally unimpressed. He is Narinder Punj, the “chief visionary officer and mentor” of Big Daddy casino, which is owned by Gopal Kanda, the MLA from Sirsa, Haryana. Punj says that casinos are unassailable in Panjim, no matter what shenanigans are underway in the campaign trail.
“Casinos have been an issue in every election,” notes Punj. “So now in Panjim, you have Babush Monserrate who is saying within 100 days I am going to get casinos out. Actually, we have heard that before from Parrikar too. He used to stand outside the Caravela—the first “offshore” casino in Goa—with a mashaal. But after elections, it is totally different. It won’t be long before the people who now speak against us, come with us. I have seen this pattern for over two decades.” What is left unsaid is the arm-twisting and inducements to manufacture this kind of political consensus. In fact, the game is already over in Goa: “Awarding a licence to any operator in any other state can topple the government because there is huge public resentment against casinos. So it is not surprising why most governments are very wary of allowing casinos to function in their states.”
Looking back, it is evident that Punj was right and everything else in 2019 was just smoke and mirrors. To give him whatever credit is due, Babush Monserrate did make initial noises about removing the casinos, and even made a show of clearing away some encroachments. But before those first 100 days were up, he had jumped ship along with nine other legislators from Congress to the BJP, which had already jettisoned its temporary opposition to the casinos. Lots of sound and fury expended, but in the end, it was right back to business as usual for the gambling lobby.
It is not only that one election, because nigh-identical antics have prevailed about casinos throughout the past two decades. They are continually triggered by two linked, but somewhat contradictory factors. The first is the way casinos operate everywhere in the world where they manage to gain a foothold: gambling produces pipelines of pure cash that prove impossible to fully regulate—which is significantly easier in Goa due to the lack of any meaningful controls—and are inevitably used to subvert oversight, by buying support from police and political cadres. On the other hand, by purchasing the leadership, casinos encourage organised crime—including prostitution and human trafficking—which has the potential of turning public opinion against them. That’s what has happened in Goa, where everyone has seen the damage up-close, and wants no part of it any longer. The result is an interesting conundrum: every politician decries casinos because they cannot win otherwise, and then turns 180 degrees after taking office, because that is how the system works.
How long can this bizarre situation last, with the democratic will of the people being endlessly thwarted by politicians? That question goes beyond casinos to the nature of Indian democracy, where legislative majorities are routinely kidnapped, extorted and bought rather than earned at the ballot box, as is the case in Goa, where Pramod Sawant’s government is an extraordinary grab-bag of serial turncoats and alleged crimes-accused seeking shelter from prosecution. They have grown accustomed to brazenly promising anything to anyone, yet delivering exactly the opposite and getting away with it.
In this yawning vacuum of democratic norms and procedure, the only authority still feared is the BJP high command. This brings us to the latest theatre of the absurd that has been playing out regarding casinos in this year—of G-20 posturing, starting with the Prime Minister’s visit to Goa in December. Overnight, all the grotesque casino come-hither that was egregiously (and illegally) plastered across the Mandovi riverfront of Panjim was taken down or covered up. It turned out that just like the Goan people, Narendra Modi also dislikes their cheap vulgarity, and none of Goa’s politicians dared to risk his ire.
Speaking for the broad consensus, the building conservationist, researcher and writer, Poonam Verma Mascarenhas, told me: “It was not just a visual relief to see the casino signage removed, but something much deeper. The sight represented, and still represents, a glimmer of hope that our cultural devastation is not yet permanent. We all know every signage matters: that visuals impact neurons which shape the intellect, so just think about what message has continually been transmitted to our children from every 10 metres on every road. Now, it’s very clear that the taking down of casino advertising was an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the city and state authorities. If they replace it after the leaders leave, it will be an equally open proof of their apathy, and total negligence towards society.”
Rather interestingly, some of the signage did come back after the PM departed, but it is now less obtrusive. What’s more, when the G-20 officials from different countries started pouring into India’s smallest state over the past month, there has been another wave of assiduous covering up, which indicates that Sawant and his party cadres understand how badly their own actions reflect on them. The only remaining question is whether they will continue to behave this way when the G-20 is over, and when the high command is no longer flying in and out of Goa. I would not bet on it.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'The House Always Wins')
Vivek Menezes is a writer and photographer