A complex, multi-cornered electoral battle in Goa has kept analysts chary of making predictions as the state votes on February 4.

There are 251 candidates vying for the state’s 40 Assembly seats. The Congress is contesting 37 seats and is supporting others in three, while the BJP has fielded 36 candidates. The Aam Aadmi Party is contesting in Goa for the first time, and announced candidates in 39 seats. The fourth player is an alliance of far right saffron parties, comprising the regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, the newly-formed Goa Suraksha Manch mentored by rebel Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Subhash Velingkar, and the Shiv Sena with 30 candidates.

The Nationalist Congress Party is contesting 16 seats. At least six smaller regional outfits have dived into the fray.

BJP battling anti-incumbency

Battling an anti-incumbency sentiment, the Bharatiya Janata Party has relied almost exclusively on former chief minister and Union Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to propel its campaign. Campaigning hectically across the state over the past few weeks, Parrikar has taken full control of poll matters for the BJP in Goa, including candidate selection, attending as many as six corner meetings in a single evening.

While the Opposition has used Parrikar’s absence at many important Delhi events, including the presentation of the budget, to ridicule the lack of a second rung leadership within the BJP in Goa, the defence minister remained unfazed.

The party has sidelined Laxmikant Parsekar who was appointed chief minister when Parrikar joined the Union government in 2014, and throughout the campaign, party leaders have consistently hinted that the defence minister could return to Goa. Analysts suggest that this is to regain the support of the upper caste mainly Brahmin business community that enjoys a rapport with the former chief minister.

In the last days of campaigning, however, the saffron alliance of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Goa Suraksha Manch and Shiv Sena trained their fire on Parrikar, bringing up his past political maneuvers in state politics and the BJP government’s U-turns on its 2012 poll promises, including action on illegal mining and the removal of casinos. The Congress too made allegations of nepotism against the former chief minister, accusing the BJP of corruption in 26 cases. All India Congress Committee general secretary Girish Chodankar said that all deals of the ruling BJP dispensation would be investigated if the Congress was voted to power.

Congress looking for a comeback

The Congress is looking to claw its way back into the state it once dominated. After a late start to its campaign, the party picked up momentum towards the fag end of campaigning.

Dragged down to just nine seats in 2012, after an anti-Congress wave, the party mechanism took a huge hit. It began to recover only after Congress President Sonia Gandhi convinced Congress Working Committee member Luizinho Faleiro to return from a sabbatical to head the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee in 2014. A former chief minister, Faleiro took a 10-year-long break from state politics after intra party rivalry saw him lose in the 2007 state elections.

Reviving the block committee from scratch, Faleiro’s team was ready by 2017 with an almost clean slate. It had 60% fresh faces to counter criticism that it was a party of veteran generals, many of whom were former chief ministers from the 1990s, when intra party toppling games were par for the course.

Still, the Congress has four former chief ministers in the fray including Pratapsingh Rane, Ravi Naik and Digamber Kamat, all of whom were backing an alliance with the newly-formed Goa Forward Party to oust the BJP.

On Faleiro’s insistence, the proposed alliance fell apart, but it could lead to the Congress losing at least two seats, due to the split in votes. The party also broke off with its former alliance partner, the Nationalist Congress Party, whose strength has largely diminished in Goa after it drew a blank in 2012. Contesting on a Nationalist Congress Party ticket, however, is former chief minister Churchill Alemao, now out of the Congress party.

The Congress campaign in Goa is overseen by All India Congress Committee general secretary Digvijay Singh. It has focused on unleashing an advertisment blitz – across print, cable, and FM jingles – against the BJP. It has attacked the BJP for bungling the demonetisation exercise, its broken promises of 50,000 jobs, the mining slump, U-turns by the BJP government and efforts by the saffron parivar to dictate what people should wear and eat.

The party eschewed large public meetings, barring one by Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi. Its campaign was restricted to corner meetings and constituency visits.

In contrast, the ruling BJP brought in star campaigners, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union minister Smriti Irani, BJP president Amit Shah, and a host of leaders to address Goa’s growing in-migrant population. The state has 14 lakh residents. One estimate says that the migrant population could account for as many as four lakh of the 11.08 lakh voting population in the state.

The BJP’s focus in its campaign – conveyed through advertisements and social media – was on its social welfare schemes and the infrastructure development it has carried out in the state. It is seeking another mandate to continue its many ongoing projects to transform Goa.

Saffron alliance could play spoiler

Also looking for a bigger comeback in 2017 is the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party – which ruled Goa for many years after the 1961 Liberation from Portuguese colonial rule. However, the party slowly lost its voter base to the BJP, which made its electoral debut in the coastal state in 1994 as a junior partner in an alliance with the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party.

The saffron combine has been formidable, consolidating majority votes in 2012 to win 24 seats.

The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party – under an upper caste leadership, a far cry from its Bahujan Samaj days – has oscillated between supporting alternate BJP and Congress governments in the 2000s.

Now backed by the party of rebel Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Subhash Velingkar – after he fell out with the BJP – the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party is hoping to increase its tally from the three seats it won in 2012.

With the BJP and Congress running in a close fight, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party could once again find itself in a position to choose whom to back. Analysts say that having read the anti-incumbency political winds early, this was key to the party’s decision to break its alliance with the BJP just a month ahead of the 2017 polls.

The hardline saffron alliance has the potential to damage the BJP’s chances in at least nine seats, due to a split of votes, adding to the BJP’s anxieties in Goa.

On the other hand, for the Congress, the spoiler in poll prospects, comes from the Aam Aadmi Party’s appeal to the region’s Catholic voters, who comprise 26% of the state’s population. The Aam Aadmi Party has fielded 15 Catholic candidates, including its chief ministerial nominee. Once traditional supporters of the Congress, the Catholic community could now see its votes splintered four ways – between the Congress, BJP, Aam Aadmi Party and smaller regional parties.