Smarting from setbacks, Congress gears up to take on BJP in Goa polls

Reeling under recurrent defections from its ranks and the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) as new contenders in Goa’s electoral battlefield, the Congress party is putting up a brave front and trying to get its act together in order to challenge the ruling BJP in the forthcoming state Assembly elections.

Despite facing various setbacks in recent days, the Congress has been the first party off the blocks to announce its first list of eight candidates for the Goa polls due in February 2022.

Eyeing the “anti-incumbency factor”, the Congress has been gearing up to take on the Pramod Sawant-led BJP dispensation over its alleged non-governance. It has undertaken various agitations against the BJP government over the last several months. Its campaign against a minister Milind Naik, a three-time BJP MLA, over a sexual exploitation case led to Naik tendering his resignation earlier this month.

But the Congress has been in dire straits in Goa for a long time. It had emerged as the single largest party with 17 seats in the 40-member state Assembly in February 2017 polls. It not only failed to form its government, but saw its legislative strength getting reduced consistently — to only 2 MLAs now, that include Leader of Opposition and former chief minister Digambar Kamat and the Assembly’s senior-most legislator Pratapsingh Rane, a six-time former CM, who has been with the party for 45 years.

Over the last nearly five years, the Congress just saw warily the defection of its MLAs at regular intervals, with has continued till recent weeks. Even by Goa’s standards in the political game of musical chairs, the party has been its worst sufferer. During the last two months, seven MLAs have switched parties, three of whom are from the Congress.

While then Congress MLA Vishwajit Rane, currently health minister, quit the party and switched to the BJP just after the 2017 polls, two others – Dayanand Sopte and Subhash Shirodkar – followed suit in 2018. In early 2019, the party saw the defection of its 10 legislators to the BJP fold. Its legal challenge to their defection has been pending in the High Court, even as fresh polls are around the corner.

In recent weeks, the Congress lost its three MLAs, who represented various constituencies in South Goa. While Ravi Naik, MLA from Ponda, joined the BJP, Luizinho Faleiro and Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco, MLAs from Navelim and Curtorim respectively, joined the TMC, the new entrant into the Goa fray.

It was Lourenco’s exit that was apparently most embarrassing for the Congress because it had gone out of its way to retain him when he was first reported to be in talks with the AAP. He was made working president of the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) and also named in the first list of its election candidates. However, barely a few days afterwards, he was on a flight to Kolkata to be inducted into the TMC.

Even Pratapsingh Rane’s candidature from his bastion Poreim has now come under a shroud of uncertainty as his son Vishwajit has also staked his claim to contest it as a BJP candidate, insisting that it is time for his father to announce his retirement.

Brushing aside the long saga of setbacks, GPCC president Girish Chodankar, however, says the defections have actually been an “opportunity” for the party in the state. “It is not really a question of who remains or who goes. Those who have greed for money or those who are between two parties were not wanted. It was our choice not to give (election tickets) to such people. If they have gone for money, it’s better that they have done it now rather than doing it after election. That would have been more disastrous. Those who are leaving for greed for money, it’s better that they leave. We take this as an opportunity to cleanse our party,” he says.

Echoing the Congress central leadership’s line that the AAP and the TMC would split the anti-BJP votes in the Goa polls, Chodankar claims that they had joined the fray “only to dent” the Congress party’s electoral prospects. “The entire purpose of their coming to Goa was to target the Congress,” he alleges. He, however, adds that “No election is easy, but when you are in the battlefield you have to fight and we are giving a tough fight.”

Earlier this month, the Congress formally announced an alliance with the Vijai Sardesai-led Goa Forward Party (GFP) after months of negotiations. AICC in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao is credited with stitching the alliance about which Chodankar refrains from commenting much, thereby betraying some disconnect between the AICC and the GPCC.

However, senior Congress leader and former Union law minister Ramakant Khalap, who is a member of the party’s manifesto committee for the Goa polls, said, “The Congress is an open political party where there is room for discussion. Discord and dissent is a healthy sign of political engagement. When the party announced an alliance, of course, there were repercussions. Some people felt this was unnecessary because GFP does not have a pan-Goa presence, others thought they should have merged with Congress. Apprehensions are always there. Even a monolithic party goes through this turmoil. BJP is no exception.”

The party’s detractors have often accused the Congress of taking too long to take decisions. Chodankar, however, disagrees. “This is the perception our opponents are creating. Where are we late? We are the first party to declare our candidates,” he says.

Congress leaders assert that there was a “huge anti-incumbency” against the BJP that has been in power for a decade. They maintain that the party has a “natural tendency to bounce back” in the state. They also pin the party’s hopes on the continuing churn in Goa politics and its changing demographic profile.

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