Goan Retreat

Lavish birthday plans point to complicated politics of 'simple man' Parrikar

Manohar Parrikar's unpredictable year as defence minister has punctured the aura he had acquired as Goa's indisputable mascot.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar’s lavish birthday plans have raised question marks over the political future of a man whose steady rise was aided by his portrayal as a “simple man”.

The former Goa chief minister turns 60 on Sunday. On the agenda is a four-hour party in Panaji, expected to be attended by more than 50,000 people including Union ministers, the entire state cabinet and top industrialists.

The Opposition as well as civil society have questioned the extravagance of the celebrations, given that various agencies of the defence are still engaged in relief work in the aftermath of the Chennai floods, apart from the frequent loss of soldiers in infiltrations on the Line of Control.

“The birthday bash just goes to show how callous the Bharatiya Janata Party and Parrikar have become,” said Girish Chodankar, secretary of the All India Congress Committee. “The floods in Chennai are a national tragedy. Soldiers like Colonel Santosh Mahdik are dying because of increased hostility on the border. Yet, here they are hosting parties like greedy children."

The Congress has claimed that the budget for the event is Rs15-20 crore and that government machinery is being used to transport guests to the venue, as well as raise funds for the celebration. The BJP has called the Congress’ allegations jealous and small-minded.

“He is Goa’s favourite leader and the public celebration is spontaneous,” said BJP spokesperson Dr Pramod Sawant. “The amount of money which will be spent is almost negligible. Legislators are working independently to get 50,000 people to the venue.”

The Congress has sought Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s intervention, while a lawyer-activist has petitioned the Goa Human Rights Commission against the bash.

False impression

So how did a canny politician like Parrikar, who had carefully cultivated an aura of simplicity, end up getting cake on his face even before blowing out his birthday candles?

The tallest leader in the BJP’s Goa unit, Parrikar had vacated the chief minister’s chair late last year after being appointed defence minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet. It the highest position ever held by a Goan politician at the Centre.

The pinnacle of his career so far was accompanied by stories of Parrikar’s simple lifestyle. Talk did the rounds about him riding a motorcycle or driving a Maruti 800 to work, doing his own shopping, walking around the streets of Goa and standing in a queue at a wedding to greet the couple.

While the photo of him in line at the wedding was genuine and went viral, the other stories were nothing but myths, devoid of proof but furthered by his supporters on social media.

Managing expectations

Despite big expectations, Parrikar has not exactly set South Block on fire. His coarse comments on China-made Ganesha idols and talk of nuking half of India’s people to tackle the population crisis have dented his carefully nourished image.

For an outspoken man like Parrikar, his transition from the undisputed king of state politics to second fiddle in Modi’s durbar may not have been the easiest.

According to Congress leader Shantaram Naik, Parrikar’s recent ambiguous statement about retirement may well have been an expression of his discomfiture in the Union Cabinet.

“Parrikar might have also felt frustrated in the defence ministry, as he has practically no effective role to play except to act as a postman of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Cabinet,” said the Rajya Sabha MP from Goa.

Critics claim that insecurity about his national role has Parrikar on tenterhooks, forcing him to put one foot in Goa.

Home comforts

The Opposition has already described Parrikar as a “weekend” chief minister because of his habit of meeting bureaucrats, industrialists and party leaders at his camp office in Panaji on Saturdays and Sundays.

Parrikar, however, insists that these frequent visits are merely to touch base.

“My political roots are in Goa. Who does not keep in touch with his roots is no politician,” Parrikar said at a public function in October.

Another potential cause for concern is the rise of his successor as chief minister – Laxmikant Parsekar. Since assuming office a year ago, Parsekar has not only gotten rid of Parrikar acolytes, but also voiced dissatisfaction over Parikar’s weekend visits.

“There are occasions when the chief minister has refused to entertain top industrialists, who want him to clear critical files simply because they have explained the nitty-gritty to Parrikar at his Panaji camp office,” an official at the chief minister’s office said.

Parrikar has been the party’s indisputable mascot in Goa for the last two decades. But last week, state Bharatiya Janata Party president Vinay Tendulkar said that Parsekar would lead the party in the 2017 state assembly elections.

The uncharacteristic mega birthday celebration, where incidentally Parsekar is the head of the event’s reception committee, may well be Parrikar’s way of showing who is boss.

Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is the Goa correspondent for Indo-Asian News Service.

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