Two crucial bye-elections in Goa – one in state capital Panjim where Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar seeks to return to the Assembly – will take place on August 23. The other is in interior Goa’s Valpoi segment, where former Congress minister Vishwajit Rane contests on a BJP ticket against the Congress’s Roy Naik. Rane, who contested the seat as a Congress candidate in the February elections, resigned from the constituency weeks after he was elected and crossed over to the BJP-led government that handed him the health portfolio.

Both seats are critical to cement the BJP-led coalition government’s hold on power in the state. But the high-stakes contest in Panjim, which could well determine the fate of the coalition headed by Parrikar, is the attention grabber. A BJP defeat in Panjim could potentially shred the government’s credibility over a controversial government formation exercise in March, which went ahead with support from Raj Bhawan.

The BJP had lost the polls with 13 seats to the Congress’ 17 in the 40-seat Assembly but was invited to form the government by Governor Mridula Sinha in a controversial breach of convention. Parrikar went on to cobble together a government with the unlikeliest of allies – its once strident critic the Goa Forward Party, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Independents.

Rane’s subsequent resignation and crossover to the BJP brought down Congress numbers to 16 in the House. In May, Panjim MLA and Parrikar protege Siddharth Kuncalienkar resigned to pave the way for the chief minister to contest the seat. A Rajya Sabha member from Uttar Pradesh during his stint at the Centre as Defence Minister, the BJP relieved Parrikar in March to return as Goa chief minister. To continue in office, Parrikar must win a seat in the Goa Assembly within six months of his taking power.

Panjim: Parrikar territory

On the face of it, the chief minister seems invincible. He has had five consecutive wins from Panjim since 1994. The highly-organised BJP has a cracking booth-level mechanism in most North Goa constituencies, more so in Panjim. Yet there is a subdued mood in the capital, and perceptible nervousness in the Parrikar camp as he approaches the residents of Panjim for the sixth time.

“Maybe it is because there is so much at stake in this election,” said one political analyst. “But it is also because the Congress candidate has managed to make a bigger impact than the BJP expected.”

Pitted against Parrikar is All India Congress Committee secretary and unassuming party loyalist Girish Chodankar who was fielded as a last resort after his party failed to find a sufficiently powerful opponent to challenge Parrikar in his Panjim fortress.

Sections of ambitious Congress legislators hoping to return to power through this August 23 bye-election, had solidly plumbed for a ticket to Atanasio (Babush) Monserrate, the mercurial ex-Congress politician who holds a groundswell of support in the city. Monserrate contested the Panjim seat as a United Goans Party candidate in February but lost by about 1,000 votes to the BJP’s Kuncalienkar. However, his reputation of having the wherewithal to topple governments, made him a favourite yet again with this section of the Congress. They bayed for the ouster of party president Luizinho Faleiro, and got their way when Shantaram Naik was appointed Pradesh Congress Committee President in early July.

The Congress had expelled Monserrate for past betrayals, and for aligning with Parrikar, but everyone was still shocked when Monserrate, who was in talks with the Congress to contest from Panjim, ditched the party at the end of July and suddenly joined BJP ally, the Goa Forward Party, weeks ahead of the present bye-election, thus paving the way for a no-contest or easy win for Parrikar.

Atanasio (Babush) Monserrate. (Photo credit: IANS).

David vs Goliath?

The Congress went into a huddle to choose a candidate, settling finally on Chodankar, while BJP supporters in the media went to town ridiculing the Congress. A smug BJP said Chodankar would lose his deposit.

But two weeks into the campaign, ground level reports suggest that the Congress could not have done better with its choice of candidate.

A teacher, with a humble, approachable and sincere manner, Chodankar, his wife and supporters of the National Students Union of India, the student wing of the Congress party, have trudged to each house in the city, coming out from nowhere to make an impact. The clean, honest image is a change and Congress strategists are emphasising the David vs Goliath undertones of the contest.

The ironies are unmissable to any political watcher. In 2012, Parrikar claimed the “clean and principled” mantle. In August, the roles have reversed, with the Congress’s Girish Chodankar cast in the role of humble challenger, and the chief minister now allied with politicians he had once dubbed corrupt. The contrast was only sharpened when, over the weekend, a string of controversial politicians and ministers – from the Goa Forward’s Vijai Sardesai, Mauvin Godinho, Ramkrishna Dhavalikar and Monserrate held press conferences to back Parrikar.

Parrikar confident

“I will win. By what margin I will win by, that is the only question,” Parrikar told a Yuva Morcha meeting on Saturday in the party head office. “I don’t want to predict anything, but will the margin cross 30% or 40% of the votes, that is the question. I am sure I will win, not just comfortably, but very very comfortably.”

Parrikar’s highest margin in Panjim was 6,000 votes in 2012. But he has been MLA of Panjim for 23 years and criticism of his tenure is rife in a city with severe parking and garbage disposal problems, besides flooding in some low-lying areas during the monsoon, and water shortages in others.

“From the moment he was elected though, he has always been caught up with larger politics of the state,” said one middle class Panjim voter. “As chief minister he has had little time to pay attention to Panjim’s woes.”

Chodankar’s campaign has been hammering this in. “How can he still make the same promises to voters,” said Chodankar. “After 23 years he ought to have been presenting a progress report, not promising to appoint IAS officers to study the city’s problems. That means he does not know what the city’s issues are.”

Chodankar also rubbishes the BJP’s Smart City project for Panjim, saying he was shocked to learn the city has water shortages and sanitation problems. “I don’t make promises except to say I will be transparent and work to win the people,” he said.

Parrikar’s stature as an effective administrator and chief minister with a deep grasp of details of the state’s policies though, was apparent as he fielded queries from Yuva Morcha members. “One can’t say what will happen,” said a worried BJP supporter. “Sometimes people don’t see the larger picture, but vote on the basis of personal relations.”

Others are certain Parrikar will ride back. “Everyone knows Parrikar,” said a restaurant owner in the city. “He is bound to win.”

Anti-incumbency factor

But five years in power has seen the issues stack up against the BJP. Former supporters are distressed over what they say are Parrikar’s U-turns, especially on casinos.

As Opposition leader, Parrikar joined anti-casino protests, but in power, the BJP failed to have them shifted out of the Mandovi river in Panjim, from where five of them operate. All licenses were renewed, and in July, a sixth floating casino was set to join the crowd. However, Lucky 7, as the ship is called, got grounded on a sand bar near Panjim’s Miramar beach when it attempted to sail into the Mandovi in July, during the monsoon, despite warnings by port authorities. This became grist for the Congress’s electoral campaign, which was launched metres from the ship’s hulk on the beach. Salvage efforts to have Lucky 7 towed away have failed so far.

What may worry Parrikar though is the Catholic Church’s dismay at what it sees as the Union BJP government’s pro Hindutva policies. According to the 2011 Census, Christians form 25% of the state’s population. Keen to keep the arithmetic in its favour and hold onto the Christian support that it tapped into in 2012, saffron politics has been kept relatively muted within the state.

Minority voters, however, are worried about the nationwide atmosphere and any swing back to the Congress could chip into the BJP’s votes.

Over the past month, the Catholic Church in Goa joined with Muslim Jamaats to hold a peace rally after several incidents were reported of vandalism in cemeteries, and released a fact-finding report just two days before the Panjim bypoll. An article in a Church bulletin that chronicled and red-flagged what it called the Centre’s attacks on freedom in the country, and warned of growing Nazi tendencies, has caused consternation in the ruling coalition on the eve of the polls.

The Aam Aadmi Party’s decision to stay away from these bye-elections after drawing a blank in February, is seen as beneficial for the Congress. But for all its efforts, the party is hamstrung by a weak organisational base in the capital without Monserrate and his panel of corporators who rule the Panjim Municipal Corporation.

Political watchers say not all is smooth sailing within the BJP organisation itself. Calling the shots in the coalition, the Goa Forward Party, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Independents have cornered the lion’s share of cabinet berths and official positions – including on the important Planning and Development Authorities – to the chagrin of BJP party workers.

An inner coterie of new upper caste individuals now call the shots in the party while veteran leaders have been sidelined say BJP party analysts. Former Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar, who has been president of the party in the past, is hardly seen.

August 23 will be Panjim’s fourth poll in six years and Parrikar’s comeback election to hold the state government together. But between 2012 and 2017, much water has flowed down the Mandovi, and perceptions have drastically altered, whatever the result.