The beginning was as blusterous as they come. On April 1, the Aam Aadmi Party launched a Goa Jodo campaign to “unite Goans against the destructive and divisive politics” of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress. Precisely a week had passed when its volunteers fanned out across capital city Panjim with leaflets and placards, exhorting citizens to join “the political revolution for corruption-free politics”.
Dozens of AAP banners have been hung in every ward of 25 constituencies. The party plans to hold 300 big and small ward meets in April alone besides conducting a door-to-door campaign to enlist volunteers.
Goa doesn’t go to polls until February 2017, but the fledgling Aam Aadmi Party is already off the block. It has increased raised its profile – by championing more causes – and increased its spending. Even if its efforts cut no ice with the voters next year, it won’t be from lack of trying.
The party's intent was made clear in March by Ashutosh. During a visit to the state, the party spokesman announced that Arvind Kejriwal’s young outfit will contest all 40 assembly seats in Goa.
“They [the people of Goa] neither want to continue with the present government nor they have any love for Congress either,” Ashutosh was quoted as saying by The Hindu. “They are looking for an alternative. A clean, honest, performing government, which can make Goa corruption-free.”
Ever since then, AAP’s visibility is unmistakable. Last week, it supported tribals who are facing police backlash for daring to suggest that a village co-operative should run iron ore mining instead of corporations laying waste to their village. Before this, it had extended support to villagers who were protesting against DefenceExpo being set up on a remote industrial estate plateau.
AAP’s criticism of the BJP government so far echoes the censures of activists. “After the Congress, people expected much from the BJP in Goa,” AAP Goa Secretary Valmiki Naik told a media conference. “But they have been worse. It is clear that Goans find them fascist, corrupt and untrustworthy. They have taken a U-turn on every promise they made, including to shift casinos out of the Mandovi river.”
The BJP government’s reclassification of the coconut tree as a palm, which facilitates environmental destruction, is one of AAP’s criticisms. Another is the pro-construction, pro-business move of according blanket powers to the Investment Promotion Board.
People feel that “both the Congress and BJP have betrayed them,” said AAP’s state convenor and former journalist Rajeshree Iyer Nagarsekar. “There is a vacuum and that has to be filled by AAP.”
Under BJP's influence
Despite its seeming self-assuredness, the party is yet to be taken seriously in Goan political and media space. More importantly, it is unable to shake off the perception that the Goa unit is somehow hinged to a BJP game plan to romp home to victory by dividing opposition votes. Political leaders say the saffron party has in the past decade funded smaller parties, rebel leaders and Independents to split secular, opposition and anti-BJP votes.
This was echoed by former Union minister and Congressman Ramakant Khalap – in Goa’s small assembly segments where victory margins are sometimes merely 300 and 400 votes, multiple contestants and a vote split, especially among secular, non-BJP votes, benefits the BJP.
There is a growing feeling in the political space that opposition parties should unite in a Bihar-style Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to stop the BJP gaining another term in office. “AAP’s national policy is not to have alliances,” said political watcher Cleofato Almeida Coutinho. “But somehow at this stage, the feeling is that opposition parties have to collaborate. Anything else will benefit the BJP.”
It is not uncommon to hear activists or opposition leaders whisper suspicions of the saffron party’s influence on AAP Goa. Some, like RTI activist Aires Rodrigues, have openly said so.
As evidence, Rodrigues notes that AAP launched its outreach programme from minority Catholic-dominated areas of Benaulim in South Goa. During the 2014 general election, it was the presence of multiple minority candidates that allowed the BJP to win the seat for the first time.
Furthermore, prominent AAP Goa face, Dinesh Waghela, was associated in the past with Baba Ramdev, Patanjali Yog and the Bharat Swabhiman Trust. He shared the dais with Ramdev on the yoga guru’s visit here.
Not taken seriously
The party has other challenges. “Until it is known who their people are, they will not be taken seriously,” said political watcher Almeida Coutinho. “So far they have failed to catch the imagination of the people of Goa.”
The public sees it as an amorphous party unit, run by two well-meaning, affable office-bearers, with no expertise in politics. It has been unable to attract anybody of standing in the state. Only last week it announced a list of spokespersons to the media.
After the initial euphoria and the ugly expulsion of Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, many of Goa’s respected public figures eschewed any direct association with AAP. That could change if the party does well in Punjab, which goes to polls early next year and where AAP truly fancies it chances. Also, there are plans to bring Arvind Kejriwal down to Goa for a public meeting sometime soon.
Dr Claude Alvares, a green campaigner and executive member of the national steering committee of Yogendra Yadav’s Swaraj Abhiyan, says he would like to see the Abhiyan and AAP ally in Goa to create the space for alternative politics in Goa.
Environmentalists, anti-mining activists, civic-minded citizens, and sections of the intelligentsia are AAP’s core constituency. On this Women’s Day, AAP said it’ll offer at least 15 of the 40 seats to women in a state where they are unable to get even a toehold in mainstream parties.