The energy was palpable at a crowded corner meeting on Sunday in Goa’s largest slum – the 12,000-voter strong Zuari Nagar in South Goa’s Sancoale village, in the constituency of Cortalim.
Olencio Simoes, a fishing rights activist, the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate from that seat, was speaking, promising to reverse the area’s neglect by successive Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party governments when the state votes for a new government on February 4.
“I give you a guarantee. In the next five years we will do phase-wise rehabilitation and make all the houses pucca,” Simoes said. He also promised 200 toilets and a dedicated police station in the area to tackle crimes, unreported rapes and goondaism.
The Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate and former bureaucrat Elvis Gomes made a similar pitch.
“Forget the past,” he told the audience. “We will make your future and that of your children. It will be a government of the aam aadmi.”
Arriving to flag-waving by the Aam Aadmi Party’s outstation volunteers, party leader and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal proceeded to garland a statue of BR Ambedkar to slogans of Vande Mataram, Bharat mata ki jai and inquilab zindabad.
In his speech, Kejriwal pointed to Delhi’s mohalla health clinics, free water and halved electricity bills as evidence of the gains his corruption free administration brought to residents of the national capital within two years.
Kejriwal urged the crowd to reject the alternating cycle of Congress and BJP governments, and bring in change by voting for his team of honest, young, energetic 39 Aam Aadmi Party candidates led by Gomes.
“But if any MLA does gadbad [something wrong], tell me,” he said. “I will never leave them. They will get double the punishment.”
From Cortalim, Kejriwal headed to South Goa’s district headquarters Margao for his third public meeting of the day.
Kejriwal was in the coastal state from January 21-23, dividing time between Punjab and Goa that go to polls simultaneously on February 4, stretching the Aam Aadmi Party’s resources in both states the party is making a play for.
As its main campaigner, he addressed eight meetings during his visit. There are no press conferences, only pre-arranged one-on-one interviews.
On mining, something for everyone
This is Kejriwal’s third visit to Goa since the Aam Aadmi Party forayed into the state’s electoral scene with its first large public meeting in capital Panjim last May. In his other visits, he met editors of newspapers, and paid courtesy calls to Goa archbishop Filipe Neri Ferrão and the head of the influential Kundaim math, Brahmanand Swami.
The Aam Aadmi Party got the nuances of Goa’s issues wrong initially, but it learnt from its mistakes with the passage of time.
“Mining is needed,” Kejriwal said in Margao. “We need to start it. But it has to be sustainable, keeping the future in mind. We cannot exhaust it all in one go.”
The party manifesto covers the spectrum of both pro- and anti-mining concerns. It vows to restore sustainable, regulated mining in areas that have seen an economic slump since mining was stopped in 2012, build a mining corridor transportation road, give a Rs-400 crore compensation package to truckers, owners, drivers and other people dependent on mining, send corrupt miners to jail and recover Rs 36,000 crores from the mining mafia, a promise the Bharatiya Janata Party made in 2012, but since ducked. The party agrees with demands for a public mining fund made, among others, by the Goenchi Mati Movement, but steers clear of issues like mining lease renewal and demands of nationalisation of mines made by the Communist Party of India.
Chief ministerial candidate
Last year, though there was intense speculation that the party would pick television journalist Rajdeep Sardesai as its chief ministerial candidate or its longtime spokesman in Goa, the articulate physician Oscar Rebello, the Aam Aadmi Party eventually roped in Elvis Gomes.
Political watchers aver it was clear that the party was looking for a prominent Christian face to tap into the critical 27% Christian population that is uncomfortable with the Congress’ perceived corruption as well as with the BJP’s majority supremacism.
There is worry in the Congress camp that its traditional Christian voters would gravitate to the Aam Aadmi Party this time. During the 2012 elections, Manohar Parrikar’s calculated outreach – fielding six Christian candidates, who won, and strategically supporting five others – helped the BJP overcome the community’s psychological barriers towards voting for the saffron party. The Christian vote saw a major split for the first time. It was divided between the Congress and BJP, with a spattering backing smaller regional outfits.
The projection of Gomes as the Aam Aadmi Party’s candidate for the top job has predictably galvanised the campaign.
An efficient, soft-spoken officer, part of Parrikar’s core bureaucratic team post 2012, Gomes held important positions while working with the government, but took voluntary retirement last year. He was disenchanted after he was passed up in the seniority ranking, a matter he pursued in the courts.
That he hails from Cuncolim, a Christian Kshatriya village that opposed Portuguese colonialists centuries ago, also gives him wider acceptance. The state’s anti-corruption bureau’s investigation of Gomes in a corruption case just ahead of the polls has given the tussle the feel of a David vs Goliath battle.
While the ruling BJP has cause to rejoice at the prospect of the Aam Aadmi Party acting as spoiler to the Congress’s chances in the elections, it came down heavily on the party when its banners juxtaposed photographs of Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar with that of Gomes to indicate dishonest and honest contenders in the polls.
For a rank outsider in Goa, there is no doubt the Aam Aadmi Party is making inroads among the electorate.
“I think they are a good alternative,” said Maria Anna da Costa, a retired school teacher who attended the Margao meeting on Sunday. “If a miracle like in Delhi does not take place here, at least we will have a good Opposition. But my brothers are saying we will split the vote so they will support someone else.”
A Catholic church body guideline has espoused scepticism of new parties entering Goa’s poll fray, but not all take its advice.
“There’s an undercurrent of support for AAP,” said Jason Cardozo, another spectator at the Margao meeting. “Compared to other parties they are better. It is a gamble, a risk, that some other party may gain in the bargain. But we’ve seen what they’ve done in Delhi.”
Cardozo added: “The other parties talk of development. But it only means acquiring more land, dislocating residents, building more bridges and big projects from where they get a cut. They will never repair and maintain existing structures because there’s less money and contracts in that.”
The Aam Aadmi Party’s Goa manifesto titled “To save Goa’s culture, identity and heritage” is expected to gladden the hearts of sections of the populace like Cardozo who are deeply uncomfortable with the BJP’s #TransformingGoa juggernaut that is rapidly morphing village Goa into a wannabe Singapore, with freeways, flyovers, casinos, gaming zones, golf courses, marinas, and second home gated condos.
Formulated after the Aam Aadmi Party held 350 Goa dialogue meetings with local citizens, the manifesto has something for everyone, from promises of a sports university to solving the issues of stray dogs and cattle. It pledges to shut casinos, “bring back the old glory of Goa” with responsible local-friendly tourism, make Goa garbage-free within a year, end gambling, drugs and prostitution, and ease business practices for local taxis and shacks.
It guarantees to protect ecology, control land conversion, oppose the proposed nationalisation of Goan rivers, have participative decision making, investigate speculative land deals and details of the controversial Mopa airport deal, and pledges to continue existing grants to English-medium schools in the much-hyped medium of instruction imbroglio.
It sidestepped any commitment on special status demands for Goa under Article 371 of the Constitution.
In welfare measures, it has promised to continue and double many of the BJP’s freebies to housewives, women entrepreneurs, women of marriageable age, the disabled, senior citizens, and girls, in addition to a promised Rs 5,000 monthly dole for the unemployed youth.
It also has a constituency manifesto for localised issues.
Critics are sceptical at the long list of promises.
“The AAP’s strategy in 2017 is the same as Manohar Parrikar’s strategy in 2012,” said Miguel Braganca, horticulturist and joint secretary of the Goa Bachao Andolan. “Promise everything to everybody. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain. They are not the only ones. All the parties are trying to outdo each other to promise Goa the moon.”
As the new kid on the block, the Aam Aadmi Party has stayed the course, going from strength to strength since national secretary and Goa in-charge Pankaj Gupta first began the groundwork for the party’s entry into the state 14 months ago, staying in Goa and assessing the ground situation.
Last March, the party announced that it was contesting the 2017 elections, kicking off 300 meetings across the state through its Goa Jodo campaign. It announced its presence in the state with banners and leaflets championing local causes. If its electoral efforts do not pay off, it won’t be for the lack of trying.
For a new party making its debut in the Goa poll fray, its highly organised campaign is getting it considerable attention. As in the run up to the Assembly elections in Delhi, the Aam Aadmi Party is following a highly-organised campaign made up of community dialogues, door-to-door calls, and the creative use of social media in Goa, with slick promotional videos online. It managed to create a huge buzz with hoardings, its ground activities and jhadu yatras, as well as catchy Konkani campaign songs.
Hundreds of volunteers from neighbouring states, some from as far afield as Uttarakhand and from overseas chapters of the Aam Aadmi Party have flooded the state for the last phase electioneering.
“I’ve been in touch with the Goa campaign for a while now, mainly making calls at night to numbers in Goa,” said Tejas Vunnava, who lives in California. Cold calling 3.8 lakh Goa telephone numbers to explain the Aam Aadmi Party’s efforts is part of the campaign strategy.
At the Sancoale rally, Ramesh from Bengaluru, told this reporter that he had come with 500 others from Karnataka to campaign for the party. They are sent to canvass with fellow Kannadigas in slum pockets and other areas where migrants live.
“Nothing is done for migrants,” said Ramesh. “Everything is done for local people only. That must change.”
Each candidate has a local resident and outstation party campaign manager driving his or her campaign.
The presence and calibration of the party’s election groundwork in Goa by its national leaders and outstation volunteers is grist for its critics and rivals, who point out that the party’s controls are with its leadership in Delhi.
“I will respect an AAP member the day he/she expresses a view on an important matter that is against Kejri’s view publicly and still survive in AAP,” wrote IITian and activist Samir Kelekar on social media.
Party with a difference?
The Aam Aadmi Party’s 39 candidates are relatively new and inexperienced faces. All are local residents with almost no career politicians. As promised, women and scheduled tribes are also represented.
“Look at them as a team, under Elvis Gomes”, exhorted Kejriwal in a recent interview.
If in 2012, the BJP projected itself as the party with a difference, the Aam Aadmi Party has now appropriated that pitch with its slogan of “Goa wants Change, Change Means AAP”, and its critique of both the Congress and BJP.
It has refused to discuss any alliance, and any query of post-poll support has been sidestepped.
Despite a few hiccups due to internal rivalries, the Aam Aadmi Party was able to announce its list of candidates days ahead of other parties. It has the largest number by any party. The Congress has fielded 37 candidates, lending support to three others. The BJP has 36 on the lotus symbol and the alliance between the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Goa Suraksha Manch and Shiv Sena has 35.
“We are a new party, trying to make inroads into Goa, so we have hit the campaign trail hardest on the ground” said Aam Aadmi Party volunteer Ashley Rosario.
In several Assembly segments, the party’s candidates are in their third round of door-to-door campaigning. Goa’s eleventh hour poll announcement gave parties a short 15-day window to reach out to voters, but the Aam Aadmi Party had already covered considerable ground.
All set for March 11
But will the considerable hype around the party, and its groundwork, translate into votes that will convert to winning seats? Will the Aam Aadmi Party be able to create Delhi’s 2015 history in Goa?
“In May, people said we would get two seats, now they are saying we can get 12 seats,” said Pankaj Gupta, the party’s Goa in-charge. “The situation has changed a lot since then. There’s an undercurrent for a change. It’s anybody’s game. There is disenchantment with the BJP for not doing what it promised and general discontent. Our estimate is we will get at least 35%-40 % if not 57% of the vote share.”
Opinion polls have predicted a split verdict given the quadrangular fight between the BJP, Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party-Goa Suraksha Manch-Shiv Sena combine.
Undoubtedly AAP has invested heavily in its Goa sojourn.
“People want in Goa what we have done in Delhi,” Kejriwal told a newspaper here. “Something extraordinary is happening in Goa. I can sense that”.
By March 11, the day of counting, the state will know if he is right.