In a startling move on Wednesday, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Goa unit lured away two of the three lawmakers of its ally, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, demonstrating an aggressive resolve to stay on top of its chaotic three-party alliance.

In a 2 am coup, Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party MLAs Manohar Azgaonkar and Deepak Pawaskar announced that they formed their own legislature wing and merged it with the BJP. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party was left with only one legislator, Deputy Chief Minister Sudhin Dhavalikar. Hours later, Dhavalikar was sacked from the cabinet.

On Thursday, the BJP announced that Azgaonkar had been appointed deputy chief minister.

The BJP’s move has drawn Goa smack into the farcical revolving door, defection-ridden politics it once decried vociferously. Significantly, its heavy-handed action has riled up its other alliance partner, the Goa Forward Party, and drawn criticism even from senior BJP members.

The three Goa Forward Party legislators in the 40-member assembly skipped the ceremony on Wednesday night to swear in Pawaskar as a cabinet member. In addition, several ruling party lawmakers were notably absent. Goa Forward Party leader Vijai Sardessai said the government would lose credibility with the public if such moves to split parties continued. He sought a clarity on the “political road map” ahead from Chief Minister Pramod Sawant.

Speculation is rife in the cloak-and-dagger politics currently underway, the BJP is also attempting to woo two Goa Forward Party lawmakers, as well as some Congress MLAs.

Making up the numbers

With the recent manoeuvers, the BJP’s strength in the 40-member state Assembly increased to 14 – as many as the Congress. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party is now down to just one lawmaker. The house also has three independents and one member from the Nationalist Congress Party. Four seats are vacant.

“Splitting the MGP at midnight is the biggest dacoity done by chowkidars,” said Dhavlikar, the sole MGP member.

Though his Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party has been an ally of the BJP since 2012, it has announced it will contest against the BJP in the two upcoming Lok Sabha polls, as well as in all the four assembly bye-polls for the vacant seats. With an intersecting vote base, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Part’s presence in the fray could damage the BJP’s prospects.

Sudhin Dhavlikar is the sole Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party member in the assembly. Credit: HT Photo

Meanwhile, the Congress has redoubled its efforts to keep its members from being poached by the BJP. “This is a blatant abuse of money and muscle power by a frustrated BJP, who could not win over the people,” said Goa Congress President Girish Chodankar. Another MLA alleged that Rs 20 crores-Rs 30 crores was being offered to legislators to defect.

Since the 2017 elections, five MLAs of other parties have crossed over to the BJP. Three switched from the Congress earlier and were give prime positions. Vishwajit Rane crossed the floor shortly after the 2017 poll, while Subhash Shirodkar and Dayanand Sopte resigned their seats and jumped ship in October 2018.

Though the latest jostling brings the BJP’s numbers on par with the Congress, the relatively inexperienced new chief minister Pramod Sawant, who took charge earlier this month after the death of Manohar Parrikar, faces further challenges from within the alliance and in his own party.

Sawant said that he had sacked Dhavlikar because the MGP legislator had not adhered to the alliance’s common mininum programme. However, it is known that the two allies were squabbling about the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s desire to contest against the BJP in an upcoming assembly bypoll. The BJP claims that Dhavlikar was made deputy chief minister on the condition his party back down from the contest. But after he was sworn in last week, he evidently went back on its word.

The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party leadership was miffed by the BJP’s attempts to keep it in line by threatening to poach two of its legislators and split their party. It had begun inner-party assessments, sacked a general secretary for anti-party activities and were apparently preparing to expel one MLA in an attempt to preempt a split.

But the BJP struck first. At 1.45 am on Wednesday, the Speaker’s office entertained the merger letters of the MGP and the BJP. Since the two MGP legislators form two-thirds of the party’s legislature wing, the split avoid the provisions of the Anti Defection Law. However, the finer debates on what constitutes a merger and a defection will likely result in a court challenge.

Old hands are unhappy

Senior state BJP core committee members Rajendra Arlekar and Laxmikant Parsekar both expressed their disapproval at the manner in which the merger proceeded and induction into the party of habitual defectors. This, they say, will damage the BJP’s grassroots organisational strength. Neither were consulted before the inductions, they said. Manohar Ajgaonkar has hopped from the Congress to the BJP to the MGP and now is back in the BJP.

The protests from the BJP’s old guard though have not had much influence on the party’s decisions which, analysts believe, are increasingly being made by the central high command. This has become specially pronounced since former chief minister Manohar Parrikar took ill about a year ago, leaving no credible and competent second command line. He held office until he died of pancreatic cancer on March 17.

Goa's political scene had become increasingly unstable ever since Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar fell ill. He died on March 17.

The alliance that Parrikar managed to cobble together after the 2017 polls, in which the BJP managed to win only 13 seats, descended into chaos during his year of ill health. There was open jostling for corporation posts and portfolios. Charges of maladministration bedevilled the alliance. Public debt grew, the key tourism industry expanded only sluggish and infrastructure creation was mismanaged.

Analysts were expecting the coalition to spin into further chaos after the prolonged backroom wranglings that preceded Sawant being sworn in as chief minister on March 19. The choice of Sawant, a Rashtriya Swayasevak cadre with no ministerial experience, was expected to spark trouble from sulking political heavyweights in the alliance and within the party. Within days of the new government assuming office, alliance ministers had openly stated they expected more portfolios from the new chief minister.

By splitting the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, BJP office bearers running affairs while Sawant finds his footing have sent out a signal that they are willing to take hard measures to shore up their numbers.