A week after Manohar Parrikar was flown into Goa by air ambulance from Delhi, a third round of talks by the Bharatiya Janata Party to find a successor to the ailing chief minister appears to have failed, with the party reiterating that Parrikar will continue to helm the state. The BJP has been unable to find a replacement acceptable to all jousting members of its fractious ruling coalition.
On October 16, the BJP lured two Congress legislators to resign from their seats and join the BJP – a move seen as crafted to paper over the ruling side’s lack of numbers in the House. The defections reduced the Congress strength in the Assembly from 16 to 14, the same as the BJP’s. This took away the Opposition party’s single-largest party advantage, and offset any constitutional obligation that Raj Bhavan would have to accord the Congress first opportunity to form the government should Parrikar’s health deteriorate further. Furthermore, it would blunt a Congress uproar should the BJP managers implement its Plan B.
There is intense pressure to prevent the Congress from ascending to power in Goa before 2019 because it will make the BJP look bad before the crucial Lok Sabha elections. Hence, if the current leadership logjam persists in Goa, its Plan B is perceived to entail dissolving the House to hold fresh state elections alongside the national polls.
The poaching exercise is at best a stop-gap arrangement – for which large sums of money are believed to have changed hands. But it has led to a rebellion within the BJP, with two founding members of the party’s state unit – who are also part of its core committee – calling for its dissolution last week.
Wait and watch?
With the two resignations of the Congress MLAs, the 40-member House is down to 38 members. At present, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Goa Forward Party – with three MLAs each – back the BJP. Three independents are also part of the ruling alliance. But with three of the BJP’s 14 MLAs currently hospitalised, the BJP’s active numbers – 11 or 12 – are precarious, given that the support of its allies and independents could shift if they disagree with any post-Parrikar leadership announcement from the BJP headquarters in Delhi.
Goa Forward Party leader Vijai Sardesai, who is also a minister, said he would await the BJP high command’s decision on alternatives to Parrikar before proffering any comment. Ramkrishna Sudin Dhavalikar, the leader of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, has said that the most senior minister – which is him – must take over as chief minister.
The BJP wants to keep the chief ministership within the party, and feels it has already compromised enough with allies and Congress imports. It is also dealing with a power struggle within the party.
There are four aspirants to the chief minister’s post within the BJP – Health Minister Vishwajit Rane, Speaker Pramod Sawant, state president and Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Tendulkar, and Ayush Minister of State Shripad Naik. Rane’s claim got a boost after he was projected as key to bringing in the two Congress defectors. The go-getting former Congressman has a mass base in three to four Assembly segments and is the son of long-time Congress chief minister Pratapsingh Rane. His non-RSS background is, however, seen as a downside. Sawant, on the other hand, is an RSS cadre man.
Party president Amit Shah held one-on-one meetings with key allies and BJP aspirants in Delhi on October 18, but made no announcement after that. Sardesai, who was among the leaders who met Shah, spoke of collective leadership when he returned to Goa. These comments were interpreted as a foil to either Rane or Dhavalikar gaining an upper hand.
At the same time, none of the incumbent legislators want a fresh election in the state. “Right now Parrikar is our leader and the leadership has made it clear that there will no change for the moment,” said a senior BJP insider. The party is hoping to force a consensus on a threat of dissolving the House. “All concerned will have to agree to a solution, or the House will be dissolved. Since nobody wants to go back to the polls, the allies will have to agree.”
The political situation in the state is therefore still fluid. There seems to be a deceptive temporary calm before the storm, as rival contenders for the coalition’s leadership warily circle each other, with the Opposition waiting for it to crack from internal contradictions. The Congress, at the very outset of the crisis, said it was wary that the BJP would impose President’s Rule via the backdoor and dissolve the Assembly to prevent any other party from assuming power in the state.
The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, which senses the potential of growing at the BJP’s cost and regaining its influence in the state, has called the bluff on the BJP’s Plan B, saying it did not fear fresh polls. Similarly, knowing that the BJP wants to prevent the Congress from forming a government in the state before the General Elections at all costs, the Goa Forward Party and independents, who have banded together, are holding out the unvoiced threat of shifting allegiance to the Opposition, to prevent the dissolution of the Assembly.
The Congress still feels it has the numbers to stake a claim to form the government if any of the BJP’s allies or independents ditch the coalition over leadership issues. After losing two MLAs, and anticipating a further poaching of its ranks, the Congress initially corralled its legislators on October 16-18 at a resort, but has now eased up on the vigil. Instead, the party is focusing on strengthening its grassroots organisation and winning possible by-elections for the two seats vacated. It feels the BJP’s misgovernance, especially over the past nine months of Parrikar’s illness – has put the party at a great disadvantage with the state’s citizens.
The BJP does not just have problems within the members of its coalition. The induction of Congress MLAs Subhash Shirodkar and Dayanand Sopte into the BJP last week has triggered a revolt in the state BJP’s core committee.
Soon after the two politicians joined the BJP, former Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar made stinging allegations against his party, accusing them of not consulting him, ignoring his loyal service, and diluting the BJP’s original character by inducting defectors. Sopte had defeated Parsekar in the 2017 polls. Over the weekend, Parsekar galvanised party workers, vowing to defeat Sopte. His stance was backed by other senior founding members of the state unit – BJP leader and former Speaker Rajendra Arlekar, and former minister Dayanand Mandrekar – who hit out at the defection culture that they said would harm the BJP. They increased the heat on Parrikar nominee and party president Tendulkar and even sought the dissolution of the local BJP unit.
The dissension within the BJP ranks has been simmering over the past months, as six former Congressmen are now BJP MLAs. Subhash Velingkar, the ousted RSS chief and Parrikar critic, joined the debate, inviting disgruntled BJP leaders to join the political outfit he created in 2017.
Thus far, the BJP has not responded to the open revolt and disgruntlement in its ranks, except to say that matters will settle down.
Meanwhile, while the BJP bides its time due to the leadership logjam – governance in the state plods on. “The administration is continuing in the same way it has over the past nine months,” a senior bureaucrat told Scroll.in. Two senior officials of the chief minister’s office are reducing Parrikar’s oral instructions to orders of approval, maintaining a log of them.
Detected with advanced pancreatic cancer in February, Parrikar has been confined to his Taleigao home – where ICU facilities have been set up – after he was stretchered out of Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences on October 14, when his condition took a turn for the worse. There have been no health bulletins from the chief minister’s office and intense secrecy surrounds his condition. “Administratively, there is no precedent for governmental functioning in this manner, only maybe in Tamil Nadu,” a senior government source said, referring to former Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s extended hospitalisation while in office before her death in 2016.
However, a meeting of the Investment Promotion Board that was to clear eight projects running into crores of rupees has become controversial. The meeting was ostensibly chaired by Parrikar via video conferencing on Wednesday. Television channels first questioned the veracity of the official claim that Parrikar had presided over the meeting and had given his assent to the projects. On Saturday, the Opposition Congress held a press conference rubbishing the official claim and demanding photographic evidence of the chief minister’s presence at the meeting and approval. “He [Parrikar] was not even in a position to walk into the state when he was brought back from Delhi recently,” a Congress spokesperson said. “How is it being claimed that he chaired the meeting when everyone has seen his condition? I appeal to Parrikar’s family to step in and stop this misuse of his name.”