Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, who is in the US for medical treatment for an undisclosed ailment and is expected to be away for at least six weeks, has opted to retain administrative control through the bureaucracy instead of delegating it to any of his cabinet colleagues.

A letter Parrikar wrote to Governor Mridula Sinha before he left indicates that he plans to stay in charge via his principal secretary and the chief secretary. He retains all his 20 portfolios, including the critical ones of home, finance, personnel, general administration and mining. Cabinet meetings will be held via video-conferencing. When this is not possible, a minister nominated by Parrikar will conduct the meetings.

Parrikar announced the setting up of a three-member cabinet advisory committee before his departure earlier this week. It includes a representative each from the three major partners in the ruling coalition – Francis D’Souza of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Ramkrishna Sudin Dhavalikar of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Vijai Sardesai of the Goa Forward Party. A memo constituting the committee was issued late Thursday – it is solely an advisory body, with its final decisions to be vetted by the chief minister.

The Congress has said that the cabinet advisory committee is an unconstitutional entity for which there is no provision in business rules for the state. On Wednesday, activist and lawyer Aires Rodrigues also served the chief secretary with a notice questioning the legal status of the committee. Political analysts, however, are of the opinion that the move, though unprecedented, is merely a cosmetic gesture aimed at temporarily placating the ruling coalition’s feuding partners, while holding out merger options to both allies. The BJP, currently facing an acute leadership crisis in the state, with Parrikar’s illness looming large, needs to strengthen its numbers, and cement its position.

Fragile coalition

Last year, the BJP lost the Goa Assembly polls with 13 seats to the Congress’ 17 in the 40-seat Assembly but was invited to form the government by the governor in a controversial breach of convention. After the results, the BJP leadership sent Parrikar, who was defence minister, back to Goa where he cobbled together a government with the unlikeliest of allies – the BJP’s once strident critic, the Goa Forward Party, as well as the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Independents. At that time, both parties reiterated that they would be part of the alliance as long as it was headed by Parrikar. This has made the political situation fluid since the chief minister was first hospitalised on February 14 after complaining of abdominal pain.

Currently, the BJP has 14 MLAs in the Assembly, and the Congress 16. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and Goa Forward Party have three MLAs each, and there are three Independents and one Nationalist Congress Party MLA.

The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party central committee vetoed the merger idea in the last week of February. On Thursday, after a central committee meeting, party president Pandurang Dhavlikar said rumours of a possible merger with the BJP were false, and said the party would support the alliance as long as Parrikar headed it, but would prepare to contest Lok Sabha and Assembly polls independently.

After 1961, when Goa was liberated from Portuguese rule, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party rallied majority Hindu caste groups on an anti-Brahmin platform and ruled the state for 17 years. But subsequently it steadily lost its votebase to the BJP through several rounds of pre-electoral alliances with the saffron party. It broke ranks with the BJP ahead of the 2017 Assembly elections but after the results threw up a hung House, it joined the coalition.

Parrikar’s towering position in the BJP’s state unit over the years has meant that other potential leaders found themselves sidelined, accounting for the current leadership vacuum and crisis in the party. “Currently, there is no one of any calibre to take the party forward in government,” said a BJP watcher. “And no one wants to take the initiative either, for fear of giving offence, so there is confusion.”

In 2017, the BJP’s strategy of giving low-key Christian leaders a party ticket to break the Congress’s hold on this electoral segment, resulted in Christian candidates winning six of the 13 seats the party initially won. There are four former Congressmen in the BJP, including Vishwajit Rane, who crossed sides after the elections, to become the health minister. He had given up his seat but won it again in the bypoll. Though the party has now nominated BJP minister Francis D’Souza as its acting leader in the House, D’Souza was passed over for the top job when Parrikar moved to Delhi in 2014, despite being deputy chief minister at that time.