Defections, rising nativism...: What’s on people’s minds as Goa goes to polls

ByGerard de Souza
Feb 13, 2022 01:56 PM IST

Goa goes to polls on Monday with 12 political parties in the fray and 301 candidates-- nearly 21% higher than the number of candidates in 2014 and nearly 50% higher than the 213 candidates who were in the fray in 2012.

PANAJI: Pascoal Fernandes, a shack owner in his mid 50s at Goa’s Candolim beach stares at the list of candidates in his constituency for the assembly elections in the state to be held on Monday and says he still can’t figure out whom to vote for.

In Goa, 27 of the 40 legislators, who were elected in 2017, are today contesting from a party different from the one they represented during the last elections. (File Photo)
In Goa, 27 of the 40 legislators, who were elected in 2017, are today contesting from a party different from the one they represented during the last elections. (File Photo)

His shack is empty despite it being 6pm in the evening, a time when tourists usually begin flocking in Goa’s famous beach shacks to soak in the sunset.

A shack operator for several years now, Fernandes laments both the poor tourist season as well as the difficulty in choosing one among the several candidates ahead of the assembly elections.

There are 12 political parties in the fray in the state, including the new entrant, the Trinamool Congress, and 301 candidates-- nearly 21% higher than the number of candidates in 2014 and nearly 50% higher than the 213 candidates who were in the fray in 2012.

Having suffered a slowdown in business over the last two years owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, Fernandes admits that it was out of the government’s hands but feels the government should have done more to mitigate the fallout.

Politicians frequently switching parties and loyalties over the last five years, which only intensified as the elections got nearer, has not made the job for the voter any easier. Twenty-seven of the 40 legislators, who were elected in 2017, are today contesting from a party different from the one they represented during the last elections.

“Today we are unsure who will jump to which side after the elections, especially with the ruling BJP likely to threaten opposition candidates with raids and harassment by central agencies,” Fernandes adds.

In the last five years, 15 from the Congress and two from the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and all three independents, who were elected in 2017, have switched sides. From the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), four have moved to other parties while another four, who had defected from other parties to the BJP, are either contesting as independents or on the tickets of other parties which were willing to accept them like the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP).

Eager to shake the tag of being a party that is prone to defections, the Congress, which is in alliance with the Goa Forward Party, has sworn not to take any of the defectors back and ensured that the alliance’s 40 candidates publicly swear that they will not switch sides after the elections. A similar exercise was undertaken by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) as well.

Defections have been a consistent theme this election.

In 2017, despite the Congress being the single largest party with 17 seats in the 40-member Goa assembly, the BJP, which won 13 seats, was able to form the government with the help of the Goa Forward Party and the MGP and independents, who, despite having run a full-throated campaign against the BJP, made an about-turn and agreed to support the party on the condition that the then Union defence minister Manohar Parrikar returns to Goa as the chief minister.

After Parrikar’s death in 2019, the BJP chose then Speaker Pramod Sawant as the chief minister, whom the allies reluctantly agreed to support, but it was apparent that the relatively inexperienced Sawant would be undermined by senior allies like the MGP’s Sudin Dhavalikar who was himself demanding to be the chief minister.

To circumvent the problem, the BJP engineered defections in the MGP and the Congress with a total of 17 legislators from the Congress and the MGP merging with the BJP.

Sawant’s leadership, however, continued to be undermined by ministers in his cabinet who often spoke in different voices as well as through growing murmurings of discontent within the party over corruption, nepotism in recruitments, failure to tackle rising unemployment and the government’s inability to resume mining.

“It appears that the mood has changed in Sanquelim and people who were once staunch supporters of Sawant seem to have deserted him this time. The inability to resume mining despite a BJP government both in the state as well as in the centre and resulting unemployment have made it difficult for him,” Xavier Fernandes, a resident of Sanquelim, said while admitting that it will be yet difficult to unseat him.

According to the latest data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), Goa recorded an unemployment rate of 11.6%, higher than the national average which stood at 7.3% in February 2022. The government attempted to mitigate the problem of unemployment through government recruitment when more than 10,000 posts were advertised in the year leading up to the election. However, with news quickly emerging that the jobs were only going to a ‘selected’ few it spurred more anger both in urban and rural Goa.

The problem of unemployment was most evident during chief minister Pramod Sawant’s door-to-door campaign in his constituency, Sanquelim. He faced innumerable requests for people to be ‘accommodated’ in government jobs claiming that despite answering the exams they didn’t make it to the list.

Other ruling party MLAs too faced similar demands with several persons hurling abuses at the MLAs during their visits and uploading their videos on social media.

The rising unemployment has given rise to nativism in Goa that unsurprisingly has been directed at ‘outsiders’ who are said to be “taking all the jobs” and has even spurred the launch of a political party -- the Revolutionary Goans Party -- that has promised to put the interest of Goa and Goans first.

“What I saw is the change in the demography of Goa, change in the tradition, culture, and our heritage. We were losing our identity. They grab our land, our comunidade land, our businesses, and all those voting cards, illegal hutments, illegal slums-- and that is what pained. We thought we should come together and start a movement and give a voice to the voiceless Goans,” Manoj Parab, the leader of the RGP, said.

His party has won admirers across the state and abroad for their unbashed nativism.

“We see in Goa today hills are being razed to make way for housing complexes, the businesses are dominated by outsiders. We need to reclaim our space,” says Peter Pereira, in his late-20s who runs a business renting out vehicles to tourists from the Saligao village.

Goa’s rapid urbanisation has been prompted by demand for second homes from buyers in metro cities and has seen huge rows of villas emerge on what were once thickly treed hill slopes of villages, especially those closer to the coast.

In 2018, the Goa government amended the Town and Country Planning Act, which governs Goa’s land use, to allow for case-by-case basis conversion of green zones into settlement and commercial zones during the tenure of Vijai Sardesai as Goa’s town and country planning minister while Manohr Parrikar was the chief minister.

The amended clause known as 16B would “allow the TCP Board to make any changes to the zoning of land if in public interest.”

“All of these land conversion applications that happen are taken in isolation as a case by case. Nobody is looking at the big picture for Goa. When we make plans for Goa, we are supposed to look at the whole state and not just the one plot. We are not saying don’t build, but we can build in certain areas where the conditions support growth and you should not allow it in other areas,” Tahir Noronha, an architect, explains.

“Who is deciding these conversions -- it is the Goa TCP Board. There are only two planners on the Board -- one is chief town planner and one is a so-called technical expert. The remaining ones are ministers, their aides and advisors and heads of various government departments, like agriculture, fisheries, etc. These committees can be very easily convinced and managed,” he said.

Between 1986 and 2008 (22 years), only 12sq km of land was converted into settlement across Goa. From 2019 to 2021, three years after the amendment came into force, six square kilometres of land was converted.

The Congress, the Revolutionary Goans Party and the Trinamool Congress have all promised to scrap the 16B amendment if voted to power while the BJP and the AAP have made no mention of it in their manifestos.

As the state goes to vote, opposition parties are hoping to cash in on the simmering discontent. The Congress-Goa Forward alliance is hoping to form the next government while simultaneously staving off the challenge from the Aam Aadmi Party and the Trinamool Congress - Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party alliance. Meanwhile, the BJP is hoping to return to power for an unprecedented third term.

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