In Goa's small, 40-member legislative Assembly, every tiny formation with three or less MLAs fancies itself as kingmaker in case no single party gets an absolute majority. Over the years, this has helped smaller parties stay in business by bargaining for lucrative ministerial berths in exchange for lending critical numbers to whichever mainstream political party – the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party – comes to power.
With Goa due for elections at the end of 2017, the latest outfit on the block is a party proposed by Subhash Velingkar, who was the state’s Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief till he was relieved of his post late last month after persistently challenging the state’s BJP government.
Velingkar heads the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch, a forum whose primary objective is to ensure that government financial aid to English-medium primary schools run by the Catholic church in Goa are stopped. It has vowed to defeat the BJP in next year’s elections for failing to keep this promise, even though it was listed in its 2012 election manifesto. This commitment, the manch claims, was the main reason it backed the BJP in that election.
But even as political pundits are assessing the potential electoral consequences of a split in saffron ranks if RSS-BJP differences are not patched up by 2017, the Opposition is fragmented too.
Every political heavyweight in Goa’s personality-based politics has set up or announced a new party to improve their personal bargaining power.
The Congress is particularly hard hit with a string of its present and former leaders having done so. For instance, former Congressman Vijai Sardesai, now an independent legislator from Fatorda in South Goa, has mentored the Goa Forward Party since January 2016 after failing to work out an understanding with the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee led by Luizinho Faleiro.
With recognition from the Election Commission of India coming through in August, the Goa Forward Party has strategically positioned itself as a regional Goa-first party, promising subsidies on fish, coconut and other local staples.
With its leadership and mentors hailing from Goa’s economically and politically powerful Goud Saraswat Brahmin group, the party is seen as an interest group. Though a tiny 2% of the populace, those from this group include prominent political leaders such as former chief ministers Manohar Parrikar and Digamber Kamat, and several influential mine-owning families.
The fledgling Goa Forward Party is pressing for a grand alliance with the Congress, which has so far dismissed all smaller parties, including the Nationalist Congress Party, as inconsequential, and intends to contest the polls alone.
Atanasio Monserrate – the unattached legislator who was expelled from the Congress in 2015 for openly supporting the BJP, proved his political muscle last year by upstaging the BJP in state capital Panaji's municipal poll. He has declared his intent to launch an independent party. His wife is still a Congress MLA from a Panaji suburb. Monserrate was earlier in talks with the Nationalist Congress Party but matters changed when he was accused in a case involving the rape of a minor.
In interior Goa, Congress MLA Vishwajit Rane is increasingly striking a note of dissent against the Congress’s decision to go alone in the polls. He is pushing for an alliance of like-minded parties and has readied a group of loyalists in case the party leadership sticks to its guns.
For the moment, however, the polls are set to be a three-way contest between the BJP, Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, which no party is discounting post its Delhi performance even though it is a last-minute entrant into Goa. AAP has sunk considerable energy and money into the Goa political scene on the calculation that the small state offers it scope to expand.
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal and his trusted lieutenant Manish Sisodia have since visited the state, positioning AAP as an alternative to both mainstream parties. However, recent troubles in New Delhi and Punjab have overshadowed AAP’s Goa efforts, as have charges by its critics that a largely New Delhi-based party could scarcely understand Goa’s localised issues.
A flotilla of smaller parties already float around in Goa, buoyed by the ambitions of their founders. There’s the Goa Vikas Party, that lent support to the BJP in exchange for a cabinet berth for its founder, Francisco Micky Pacheco. The fortunes of other smaller outfits like the United Goans Democratic Party and the Save Goa Front – once former Congressman Churchill Alemao’s political vehicle – have flowed and ebbed on the political current.
The only party that seems set to gain from the RSS-BJP rift is the saffron Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, the regional party that once ruled Goa following liberation from Portuguese rule in 1961. It is now run by two brothers – Sudhin and Deepak Dhavlikar – whose wives are active members of the Hindutva group Sanatan Sanstha that has its headquarters in their constituency.
In the citizen and activist space, new formations like the Goenchea Lokancho Awaz, and the older Goa Su-Raj Party, idealistically seek to bring activist groups and citizens together to present a people’s agenda, in opposition to the corporate-driven reshaping of the state that is now frenetically underway.