power shift

Why many Goans are pleased at the fall of Portugal’s 11-day government

There is a strong chance that Antonio Costa, the son of a Goan poet, could become the prime minister of Goa's erstwhile colonial master.

As Portugal President Anibal Cavaco Silva decides on the political course of action following the collapse of the nation’s 11-day-old centre-right coalition government, there is an air of excitement in faraway Goa. Standing on the cusp of power is 54-year-old Antonio Costa, the general secretary of the Portuguese Socialist Party, its prime ministerial candidate in the October 4 election, and the son of a Goan poet.

Shortly after the elections, which returned a hung parliament, the charismatic Costa achieved the near impossible, uniting Portugal’s three main left parties, including the Communist Party and Left Bloc. Bonded around an anti-austerity programme, the left coalition brought down the minority government of Pedro Passos Coelho.

The president now has the option of either allowing Passos Coelho to continue until fresh elections are called, or invite the left coalition under Costa to head the government. This period of uncertainty is being closely followed in Goa, with newspapers headlining Costa’s possible rise to high office.

Lisbon's Gandhi

His trajectory was set, it would seem, when he was thrice elected mayor of Lisbon from 2007 to 2015. During that time, he came to be known as Lisbon’s Gandhi, for shifting his civic offices to a poorer crime and prostitution-affected district and turning around its fortunes. He then replicated the feat in similar areas and put the body’s financials on a sounder footing.

Costa stepped down from the mayorship in April to focus on the election campaign after he was elected general secretary of the Portuguese Socialist Party and was chosen to be its prime ministerial candidate. His earlier stints were as Minister of Parliamentary Affairs, Justice Minister, Interior Minister, and as a lawmaker in the European Parliament.

Born in Lisbon, Antonio is the son of famous Goan writer Orlando da Costa, whose novel O Signo da Ira (Sign of Ire), set in Goa, is still considered a classic on colonial feudal systems that prevailed then. Orlando spent his boyhood and student years in Goa, but pursued higher studies in Lisbon, joining the then banned Communist Party. Though Orlando married and settled in Portugal, he visited Goa every few years, before his demise in 2006.

In the 150-year-old Costa ancestral house on Margao’s Rua Abade Faria Road, Antonio Costa’s first cousin Anna Kaarina has him in her prayers. “We are of course still hoping he makes it,” she said.

Others feel the same way. “It would bring great honour and pride if a person of Goan origin became prime minister of Portugal,” said Goa’s Rajya Sabha MP Shantaram Naik.

Ease of assimilation

Like most second generation immigrants, the 54-year-old Costa may identify more with his Portuguese present than with his Goan roots on his father’s side (his mother is a Portuguese writer). But the fact that the grandson of a Goan is on the cusp of becoming the head of government of its erstwhile colonial master is no less significant, says historian Lourdes Bravo da Costa.

Goan historian Dr Teotonio de Souza, who now lives in Lisbon, is less enamoured. “A Costa has hardly ever shown any interest about Goans in Portugal,” he told Scoll.in. He also points out that Portugal already had its first Goan prime minister, Alfredo Nobre da Costa, who held office for a short period as a presidential nominee from August to November 1978.

This ease of assimilation and acceptance is, in fact, rooted in colonial history.

An estimated 70,000 Indians live in Portugal, according to one 2012 academic study by Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore Professor Rupa Chanda, with the number for Goans ranging from 11,000 to 30,000. The study says the descendants of Goans who emigrated to Portugal before 1961, mainly as students in professional medical, law, engineering and humanities, easily assimilated into Portuguese society of that time, forming an elite section that was distinct from the later waves of immigration.

They spoke the language, some married ethnic Portuguese, and rose to high positions in Portugal. The assimilation was more complete with Catholic emigrants, who share similar surnames, culture and religion.

Colonial footprint

Chanda also makes the point that Portugal’s longer 451-year colonial footprint in Goa (they were the first Europeans to come in 1510 and the last to leave in 1961) was markedly different from the British. “Portugal granted Goa the status of ‘vice kingdom’, which gave the same rights [for instance, citizenship rights] to the inhabitants of Goa under colonial rule as those enjoyed by the Portuguese in Europe.”

The upper castes, both Christian and Hindu, and the propertied were of course privileged in this equation and even in the power-sharing that took place in colonial Goa, not all without rivalries and revolts. “From the mid-1800s those paying property taxes were able to vote in the elections to determine who would represent Goa in the Portuguese Parliament,” writes Lisbon-based legal anthropologist Jason Fernandes.

The possible rise of Costa, though, is taking things a lot further than that.

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