An Extraordinary Life: A Biography of Manohar Parrikar comes a little over a year after the former Goa Chief Minister and Defence Minister died, losing an intense battle with cancer. Authors Sadguru Patil and Mayabhushan Nagvenkar – both of them journalists – have presented a light, racy, readable work, recapping three decades of political events.

In 2019, Patil had preceded this offering with a Marathi book titled Goan Politics and Parrikar. The interesting details, newsy tidbits and colourful anecdotes are a plus for readers outside Goa – as is the documentation of how the government ran (or didn’t run) from the late chief minister’s sickbed. It’s the omissions and selective glossing over of too many controversial moves that, however, limit the book.
The hagiographic tone of the book will appeal to Parrikar’s many supporters. A selection of fond revelations by family and friends (collated from first hand and press interviews) take readers through his childhood and family situation, early years and dedication to the RSS, the days at IIT, Mumbai, marriage, setting up business as a young entrepreneur, and his first steps into electoral politics. Since Parrikar guarded his privacy fiercely, some of these drew the curtain on just how close the RSS was to his family and its grooming of the still young politician. Considerable attention is paid to his food preferences, smoking habit and other eccentricities.

Of his Delhi days as Defence Minister in the Narendra Modi cabinet, the book details his loneliness and dislike for the capital’s durbari culture. Significantly, it brings to a national audience what most Goans knew at the time – the astonishing fact that Parrikar was in Goa, inaugurating a mobile fish stall, when the Rafale deal was being inked by the Prime Minister. He was in Goa regularly on weekends, operating from an office in Panjim and overseeing Goa matters by proxy.

“It is likely that Prime Minister Narendra Modi dealt Parrikar the same hand which the latter used to deal to his council of ministers in Goa,” the authors suggest – pretty much taking decisions unilaterally, and conveying them post facto to the state cabinet or minister, as the book points out. One stunning decision in 2002, to dissolve the entire state assembly and force a fresh election, when he suspected rivals were plotting to dislodge him and he could be unseated –– stands out for its audaciousness.

This forced the state to take the Constitutionally questionable move of borrowing from the Consolidated Fund, as the surprise dissolution had left the budget pending. Such daring decisions, however, built his reputation (he was a media darling then), demonstrating an end-justifies-the-means politics. An insight into the former Goa chief minister from RSS leader Ratnakar Lele stands out: “In 2005, he told me the feeling of losing power was as painful as someone trying to rub off one’s skin”. That’s a candid quote if ever there was one.

Details glossed over

The book scores for documenting some aspects – though not all – of the mechanics of the BJP’s and Parrikar’s ascendance in Goa. Its show-don’t-tell approach presents a warts-and-all measure of the man, but falls short on explaining the politics and context. It labours the details of several political episodes, but fights shy of tying up the analysis – leaving readers with a less than holistic understanding of Parrikar’s political acumen.

Goa’s first 2006 anti-Muslim violence at Curchorem, that saw prominent BJP leaders named and later cleared for “lack of evidence” – finds no mention. It wasn’t pleasant politics for a state that celebrates religious harmony. Vandalisation of Portuguese art style name plaques in the mid-noughties, demands for street name changes, etc, made the Christian community feel they were sought to be vilified by association and tarred as anti-national.

Prominent citizens, who reacted to what they saw as a divisive assault on Goa’s plural ethos, were raided – case in point, a clinic and nursing home run by an eminent cardiologist, and several outlets of a confectionery business run by the co-founders of Lok Shakti, a front opposed to communal politics. Another trustee of an anti-corruption trust – Nitoll Jinn – was called on by the CID.

Readers get an idea of tactical re-orientation, towards walking a more centrist line – after this brand of polarisation did not convert to electoral dividends in 2007 (because of the demographic arithmetic). But here’s the rub. Hardline Hindutva came to be outsourced to a new-kid-on-the-block fringe group that was headquartered in Goa and proceeded to pick bones and whip up hate over beef supplies, history textbooks, colonial-era conversion, the Inquisition, etc. Shades of saffron proceeded to play the bad cop-good cop routine with the Christian minorities, beside a carrot and stick approach.

Likewise, there’s a little more context and undercurrent to the much touted 2012 “social engineering” and Parrikar’s outreach to Christians that saw the BJP win a majority – than the book lets on. In 2011, he had lent political heft to an agitation that opposed and prevented the ruling Congress from green-lighting funding for Church-run English medium schools. The Catholic religious leadership found themselves pushed between a rock and a hard place. When they appeared to have softened towards the saffron party in the run-up to the 2012 hustings, as the book states, they actually had their back to the wall.

Change of strategy

Just months earlier, analysts had discerned a dramatic image make-over in Parrikar. The abrasive, sometimes arrogant, single-minded ideological persona, had given way to a relaxed, personable demeanour. Speeches came peppered with charming anecdotes of food preferences and other quotidian matters. The clincher to breaching earlier minority distrust was as much the allotment of tickets to Christian candidates as it was the editorial swing by a daily with a sizable Christian readership.

The narrative suffers from including nary a voice from the opposition, political analysts or critics. Yet, political opponents got the full force of a ruthless, machismo politics – some of it detailed in the book.

Goa’s defection-fuelled politics in the nineties was more political sport, as all it took to pull down an intra-party rival was getting one or two MLAs to cross sides. The shenanigans of self-indulgent politicians nevertheless caused public disenchantment and cost the Congress its credibility. By the time the BJP gained legislative strength, power grabs got menacing –– and shattered the existing friendly cordiality of political circles.

National and international business interests were beginning to sink their teeth into Goa’s real estate and the stakes in the political economy had escalated. Arrests, threats of arrests, FIRs, raids, inquiries, against a string of opposition politicians increased markedly. They were dressed as anti-corruption actions, but over time it became apparent to analysts (as alleged corruption was either spotlighted or ignored, depending on political affiliation) that graft investigations were more duress to force politicians to either switch political sides, play Trojan, or contest as spoilers at elections.

Present-day raid-and-arrest politics had its democracy-crippling prequel in Goa – the malevolent drama of anticipatory bail applications, court hearings, incarceration, etc, all providing grist to the 24x7 news mill.

Failed to deliver

The focal theme of the book, made strongly in the last two chapters, is that Parrikar – with his image of anti-corruption crusader, combative opposition leader, workaholic chief minister and aggressive political opponent – ultimately failed to deliver on his immense talent, charisma and promise. It avers that he “chose to fritter away the opportunity and his shot at real greatness”, despite coming “closest to being called the ‘Hindu-Hriday Samrat’ in Goa”.

It points to his induction of erstwhile Congressmen he had accused of corruption, and U-turns on taming iron ore mining interests and the casino lobby – pledges he made as a firebrand opposition leader. It also mentions his failed promises made on the town and country planning sectors that regulate land use and usage conversions. The authors posit these as the great fall from grace, from true statesmanship. It’s here that the book skips asking the simplest question – weren’t all the promises just pre-election spin?

To many in Goa, this is a no-brainer. Iron ore mining is an employment multiplier that fuels regional politics, but extracts a devastating ecological price. Legislator, across party lines take delegations to the Centre to plead for resumption of mining. Keeping both industry and citizens placated is a political CEO’s job.

On assuming charge, Parrikar rid Goa of mining by countless bit players, put in regulations, and hiked fees – which led to the merger and consolidation of the majors, the only way the sector could hope to survive the new central regulatory ecosystem. In 2015, mining leases were renewed by the state government, a process that became the subject of a writ petition and a Lok Ayukta enquiry.

In 2017 – before illness claimed Parrikar – miners’ hopes were pinned on him, a state leader with enough clout in his party’s central command, to negotiate against the backdrop of a stronger-centre-weaker-states New India federal reality that was turning the screws on Goa’s regional mining industry. Central ministers had got their way with metamorphic big infrastructure (including highways planned through Western Ghat wildlife sanctuaries) in Goa and with movement through the state for coal supplies to steel majors in the neighbourhood.

While Parrikar was managing the mounting contradictions between competing state and national industry interests, civil society, orphaned as usual, was mounting its own pushbacks to protect its environment and shrinking space. An extraordinary life is unforgiving of this aspect of his political life.

An Extraordinary Life: A Biography of Manohar Parrikar, Sadguru Patil and Mayabhushan Nagvenkar, ebury Press.