The run up to the 2017 Assembly elections in Goa has been heralded by a steady rise in one graph – the number of cases slapped against Opposition parties.
On June 22, the state’s local newspapers reported that former Nationalist Congress Party minister Nilkanth Halarnkar, who is now with the Congress, and civil services officer Elvis Gomes, had been booked in an alleged land scam. A First Information Report was registered against the two by the Anti Corruption Branch of the Directorate of Vigilance based on an individual’s complaint. Halarnkar is the former chairman of the Goa Housing Board, while Gomes was the managing director.
In 2007, the Goa Housing Board decided to acquire land in the Margao region for a housing scheme. However, acquisition proceedings were dropped at the owner's request, according to the complaint, without due process. The property, which had been marked as a settlement zone, was allegedly changed to a commercial zone.
"Days after the story broke, Gomes, a respected bureaucrat with a reputation for delivering results, opted for voluntary retirement amid wide speculation that he was preparing to dive into politics with the Aam Aadmi Party, which announced in May that it would contest the Goa polls next year.
The AAP, in fact, was the first to jump to Gomes’ defence after the FIR was filed, saying the government was harassing current as well as potential opponents, thereby undermining the processes of democracy. The party accused the government of playing dirty to stall Gomes’ rumoured political ambitions.
Even as Gomes protested that he was not attached to the Housing Board when the alleged incidents occurred, the FIR brought out a divide within the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in Goa.
While Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar told the media that Gomes would have to face an inquiry and should not be granted retirement till that is completed, Deputy Chief Minister Francis D'Souza batted for Gomes saying he was a good officer and hinted that he may have chosen to leave service due to political harassment.
Goa’s Congress President Luizinho Faleiro, meanwhile, accused the BJP of political vendetta in targeting Harlankar.
That same week, the Anti-Corruption Branch registered an FIR against Churchill Alemao, the former Public Works Department Minister, and several engineers of the department, for alleged irregularities in purchasing water tanks.
Alemao and the engineers are accused of purchasing 6,511 water tanks for Rs 1.45 crore – which was purportedly 25-35% higher than costs estimated by the department and in violation of rules, according to a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General.
Alemao, a former Congress leader, who also had a brief stint as chief minister of Goa, spent two months in prison in July 2015 in the controversial Louis Berger bribery scandal. The US firm was accused of bribing several Indian officials to bag major projects in Goa and Guwahati.
Alemao and former Chief Minister Digambar Kamat of the Congress were chargesheeted for allegedly accepting kickbacks to favour the firm’s consultancy bid for a Rs1,031-crore water and sewerage project, funded by the Japan International Co-operation Agency.
Earlier this month, Kamat was called in for questioning and quizzed by the Enforcement Directorate for eight hours in connection with this case.
Tried and tested?
This is an old trick, say leaders. “I have publicly said that filing cases against the Opposition is a time-tested tactic of the government to hide corruption by its own leaders,” Vijai Sardesai, an indenpedent MLA who is backing Goa Forward, a regional party launched early this year, told Scroll.in. “We can expect them to go after more and more leaders, either by filing fresh cases or resurrecting old ones, especially with elections approaching.
"All Opposition leaders in Goa should file anticipatory bail applications," he added. "We don’t know who they will target next.”
A curtain raiser to this was seen in the run-up to the crucial civic polls in Goa last year.
In 2012, shortly after the BJP wrested control of the state from the Congress, the government-run Goa Industrial Development Corporation filed a case alleging fraudulent allotment of land for a Special Economic Zone. Congress leader Chandrakant Kavlekar, the former chairman of the industrial development body, was named in the case. After that, the probe was put on the back-burner, but in 2015, former Chief Minister Pratapsing Rane of the Congress and Faleiro, the former industries minister were summoned for questioning just ahead of the municipal body elections.
“The tactics adopted by this government are very suspicious” said anti-corruption and Right to Information campaigner Aires Rodrigues. “Investigating arms of the government should not act on the dictates of governments, picking and choosing which case to probe and which to hush up.”
Rodrigues, who has filed dozens of corruption cases against several party leaders, put the BJP on the backfoot when his allegations of a multi-crore scam in the state’s beach cleaning contract were taken up for hearing by the Lokayukta – anti-corruption ombudsman – earlier this week. A probe has been sought against Goa’s Tourism Minister Dilip Parulekar and brother of former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar.
More trouble may be in store for the BJP as the AAP hopes to fire back at it with an eye on the polls next year. The party said it would pursue a corruption case against chief minister Parsekar’s brother-in-law, who was caught by the Anti-Corruption Branch last year while allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs 1 lakh to issue a plot to an industrialist.
AAP Goa Secretary Valmiki Naik said the party would use the Right to Information Act to track the case and launch a signature campaign to ensure that the Prevention of Corruption Act applies equally to all. He protested the reinstatement of the chief minister's relative just months after his suspension in connection with the bribery charge. "We will not tolerate a seperate law for the the aam aadmi and another for the khas aadmi", Naik said.