The Goa government has been spluttering along without a chief minister in the driving seat for three months now, and with no clarity on when Manohar Parrikar will return from abroad, where he is being treated for a pancreatic ailment, the spotlight is on Governor Mridula Sinha.
The Opposition Congress, the single-largest party in the Assembly, has appealed to Sinha several times in the past three months to protest against the state’s headless government.
Parrikar, who first took ill in February, has been in the US since March. His portfolios, including the critical departments of home, finance, mining, personnel and general administration continue to be held by his office.
On May 9, Girish Chodankar, the newly-appointed president of the Congress wrote to Governor Sinha demanding that the BJP-led ruling coalition be directed to immediately elect a new leader in place of Parrikar and that the Assembly be reconvened to consider the Budget. The Budget Session was pruned to four days in February because of Parrikar’s ill health. “There has been no cabinet meeting in this period,” said Chodankar. “Weighty matters have remained pending.” Last month, Congress legislators had met Sinha with the same demands. The party has said that the governor has not responded to its representations.
Earlier this month, the party said that it was preparing to launch an agitation if steps to ensure Goa has a functioning government were not taken soon.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, which has issued sporadic bulletins on Parrikar’s health in the past two months, has responded to the criticism, stating that Parrikar was expected to return to Goa at the end of May. On Thursday, South Goa BJP MP Narendra Sawaikar denied allegations that the government was paralysed and alleged that the Congress’s understanding of the Constitution was weak. “The Goa government is functioning well,” he said. “The chief minister is heading the council of ministers, he is looking after the affairs of the state. Through the CAC [Cabinet Advisory Committee], this work is going on well”.
Parrikar had set up the three-member Cabinet Advisory Committee before he left the country. It got its second extension – for a month – in early May. In a memo it submitted to Sinha last month, the Congress claimed that the committee is of uncertain legal standing. No provisions for such a committee exist either in the Indian Constitution of India nor in the Rules of Business of Government of Goa, it said.
The governor’s silence on the state of affairs in Goa has prompted criticism from other quarters too. Prabhakar Timble, the former head of the Goa State Election Commission, highlighted the unprecedented political situation in the state in a column published in a local newspaper on Friday. Timble wrote in the Herald: “The cabinet form of government in the state of Goa [has been] non-existent for around 90 days as constitutional law and practice does not provide for a headless government.”
Timble said that the Cabinet Advisory Committee was “untenable and without precedent” and that the vacuum of the sort being witnessed in Goa was impermissible. He said that though there was an agreement across parties that the government’s functioning was paralysed, the BJP-led alliance had failed to find an acceptable alternative such as an acting chief minister.
He criticised the governor for being deaf to the Opposition’s demand for a replacement chief minister. “The governor seems to be more than satisfied giving credence [to talk] that the office of the governor is remote controlled by BJP national leaders,” wrote Timble. “If the BJP and their occupant at Raj Bhavan are transparent, incapacity of the incumbent would be clear.”
He cited precedents that have been followed in India in case of the death or prolonged incapacity of the incumbent chief minister. Pointing to the case of Tamil Nadu’s J Jayalalithaa – who was admitted in a Chennai hospital for a few months before she died in December 2016 – he said that the state governor had allotted the portfolios Jayalalithaa had held to finance minister Panneerselvam and also gave him the power to preside over the cabinet while the chief minister was incapacitated.
“It is for the governor to make the stop-gap or interim arrangement” by appointing the senior-most leader of the major partner in the coalition to take over the chief minister’s responsibilities while giving the coalition a short deadline to elect its new leader, said Timble.
Update: On Sunday evening, as BJP president Amit Shah visited Goa to meet with party workers, Parrikar tweeted a video of himself, urging the cadre to work to have Narendra Modi re-elected in the 2019 national elections. He said that he hoped to be back in India in a few weeks.