Counting of votes for the 40 Assembly seats in Goa will start at 8 am on Thursday. On the polling day on February 14, Goa had recorded a voter turnout of 78.94%.

As many as 11,64,215 voters have voted to elect between 301 candidates.

The state is witnessing a multi-cornered fight between the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress-led alliance, the Trinamool Congress and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party coalition, and the Nationalist Congress Party front, which also includes the Shiv Sena.

The principal contenders are the Congress and the BJP, who have ruled Goa for the better part since it became a state from Union Territory in 1987. However, with so many parties in the fray and low victory margins, the vote margins of the the BJP and Congress are likely to be affected, which will weigh in on their winning chances.

In 2017 elections, 11 seats had a victory margin of less than 2,000 and 27 were won with a difference of less than 5,000 votes.

Political parties in the fray

The BJP is seeking to retain power in the state it has ruled since 2012. This is the first election the BJP is contesting after its stalwart leader and former Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar died on March 17, 2019. Parrikar was so important to the state that the BJP central leadership had appointed him chief minister after winning the 2017 polls while he was the Union defence minister.

However, the saffron party snubbed Parrikar’s son, Utpal Parrikar, refusing to give him a ticket to contest the Panaji seat. Utpal Parrikar is now an Independent candidate from Panaji. He had declined an offer from the Aam Aadmi Party to contest on its ticket.

The other major party in the state is the Congress, which is looking to rectify its mistakes in the 2017 Assembly elections and assume power. In the 2017 polls, the Congress won the most seats – 17 – but failed to lead the state as the BJP had quickly formed alliances and staked claim to form the government.

Former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro, who quit the Congress and joined the Trinamool Congress in September, had cited the Sonia Gandhi-led party’s failure to form the government in 2017 as one of the reasons for his resignation. Faleiro had said that he felt “dejected, shocked and utterly betrayed” after the All India Congress Committee asked him to wait when he wanted to stake claim.

The Trinamool Congress is looking to make inroads in the state and has convinced several political leaders as well as eminent citizens, to join the party. These include Congress’ Goa unit Yatish Naik, Vijay Poi, Mario Pinto De Santana, former Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party MLA Lavoo Mamledar, Sahitya Akademi award winner Shivdas Sonu Naik and environmentalist Rajendra Shivaji Kakodkar.

Former Goa Chief Minister Luizinho Faleiro (fifth from left) poses for a photograph with West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee (centre), Trinamool Congress General Secretary Abhishek Banerjee (seventh from left) and others who joined the TMC in Kolkata. (Image credit: Luizinho Faleiro/ Twitter)

This time, the Aam Aadmi Party is also hoping to make its presence felt in the state. It had contested the 2017 polls but failed to win any seats.

The Shiv Sena and Nationalist Congress Party are contesting the polls along with the Congress, their ally in Maharashtra’s Maha Vikas Agadi government. While the Nationalist Congress Party had won one seat in the 2017, the Shiv Sena had not contested the polls.

Given the multi-cornered fight and predictions of a hung Assembly, the Congress had said on Monday that it would begin talks with parties that oppose the BJP to form a government in Goa.

Exit polls

The BJP and Congress are poised for a neck-and-neck race in Goa, as per NDTV’s poll of polls.

Both parties are tipped to win 16 seats each in the 40-member Assembly, according to the poll. The Trinamool Congress-led alliance is likely to win three seats, while other parties are likely to bag five constituencies.

The BJP-led alliance will likely secure victory in 13 to 17 seats in the coastal state, while the Congress and its allies may win 12 to 16 seats, as per ABP Majha-CVoter.

On the other hand, the India Today-Axis My India poll predicts that the Congress will be marginally ahead at 15 to 20 seats, while the BJP will get 14 to 18 seats.

Key contenders and seats

One of the most important seats is Panaji. The seat had been held by Manohar Parrikar and the BJP had fielded Congress turncoat Atanasio Monserrate. Utpal Parrikar is contesting the seat as an independent candidate and is backed by the Shiv Sena. The Congress has fielded Elvis Gomes, and the Aam Aadmi Party Valmiki Naik.

Chief Minister Pramod Sawant is contesting from Sanquelim against the Congress’ Dharamesh Saglani, Aam Aadmi Party’s Manoj Gandhi Amonkar and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party’s Mahadev Khandekar. Sawant has held the seat since 2012 but in the last election, he had defeated Saglani by a narrow margin of 2,131 votes.

The Santa Cruz seat is significant as Aam Aadmi Party’s chief ministerial candidate Amit Palekar is contesting from there. Palekar, an advocate and a social worker, had gained prominence after he staged an indefinite hunger strike to save a heritage site in old Goa where illegal construction was being done. However, the Congress has not lost the seat since 1999. It has fielded Rodolfo Louis Fernandes and the BJP Antonio Fernandes from the seat.

In Fatorda, Goa Forward Party’s president Vijai Sardesai, an ally of the Congress, is looking to secure a third consecutive win. The Goa Forward Party was an ally of the BJP but had severed ties with it in April, accusing the saffron party government of introducing “anti-Goan policies”. The Trinamool Congress had originally fielded Faleiro from the constituency but he withdrew his candidature.

Goa Forward Party chief Vijai Sardesai and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. (Image credit: Vijai Sardesai/Twitter)

The elections to the eight constituencies in Salcete region, which is dominated by a Christian population of more than 40%, is also key for the BJP. The region is often called Goa’s belt of “kingmakers”, having produced four chief ministers. It comprises Margao, Fatorda, Navelim, Curtorim, Benaulim, Velim, Nuvem and Cuncolim seats.

In 2012, Parrikar had devised a quid pro quo deal, deciding not to contest all the eight seats, but supporting independent and non-Congress candidates who would later back the saffron party. With this and Parrikar turning down the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, the party had managed to create a base in the region. However, the party is fielding candidates from all eight seats for the first time this election.

Key electoral issues

Unemployment, corruption and the mining ban are major issues in the state elections this year. Sawant himself had admitted to unemployment being a problem in the state.

“There is a lot of expectation for jobs,” he had said during his campaign trial. “We have been able to fill some vacancies, many are pending. Due to the closure of mining and the Covid-19 pandemic, people are expecting jobs.”

At over 13%, Goa’s unemployment rate has remained the highest among all poll-bound states in the last five years. The state’s employment rate has plummeted from 49% to 32% in the five-year period.

Given the high unemployment rate, almost all the contesting parties, including the BJP, the Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, have promised jobs in their manifestos.

The issue of corruption, meanwhile, had cropped up after former Goa Governor Satya Pal Malik’s interview to India Today in October.

In his interview, Malik had accused the state BJP government of corruption, saying that it had become a “slave to casino owners”.

“There was corruption in everything the Goa government did,” alleged Malik, who served as the governor of the state from November 3, 2019 to August 18, 2020. “I was removed for my allegation of corruption against the Goa government.”

The Opposition parties did not fail to bring up the matter, with the Congress demanding the chief minister’s resignation.

Banking on the matter, the Aam Aadmi Party promised to form the first corruption free government in Goa, in its manifesto.

Similarly, the mining ban remains a sensitive issue in the state. While Goa is rich in coal and iron ore, which had once contributed to the state’s economy, mining was stopped in 2018 following a Supreme Court order due to environmental concerns.

Iron ore mining at Kodli near Panaji in 2016. (Image credit: IANS)

The court had said fresh leases would be issued only after companies obtained environment clearances, and had asked the government to start a fresh auction process. The BJP had then said that the judgement would result in heavy losses and unemployment.

Given the importance, political parties have again promised to resume mining, but in a sustainable manner to safeguard the environment.

Senior journalist Prakash Kamat, however, believes that neither of the issues are likely to play a large role in the polls.

Because Goa is essentially a republic of 40 independent constituencies, explains Kamat, “elections here are not decided by issues but by personalities.”

“When you have constituencies consisting of only 20,000 – 30,000 voters and decided by the thinnest of margins, you can use your influence, money and the manipulations of caste and religion to see you through,” said Kamat. “It does not mean, mining that so many including the state were dependent on is not an issue.”