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Will turncoats, pandemic mar BJP's chances in Goa?

By Radhika Ramaseshan
July 15, 2021 09:30 IST
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If pandemic (mis)management threatened to dominate Goa’s electoral discourse, the BJP is up against a deeper structural issue in its organisation, created by the fact that a majority of the legislature party and the ministerial council is made up of Congress defectors, disparagingly referred to by the Opposition as “imports”.

Radhika Ramaseshan reports.  

IMAGE: Goa Chief Minister Pramod Sawant with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photograph: @DrPramodPSawant/Twitter

In May 2020, when the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, Goa declared itself a “green zone” state, without a single case. 

Emboldened by its “standout” status, Goa -- the economy of which is largely powered by tourism -- kept its borders open for visitors from its pandemic-afflicted neighbours, notably Maharashtra, as well as other states.

“We are a tourism state. There are 10 times more tourists than our population (1.53 million). If there’s no tourism, other business activities come to a standstill,” said Nilesh Cabral, minister for non-conventional sources of energy and Bharatiya Janata Party MLA.

By April 2021, the fallout of the open-door policy was visible.

On May 12, 2021, Goa reported a single-day high of 2,865 cases and 70 deaths.

A day before, 26 Covid patients died in the ICU of the state-run Goa Medical College and Hospital, reportedly because of oxygen shortage.

CM Pramod Sawant ruled out a severe lockdown because tourism and industrial activity could not be stalled.

In a shocking intervention, Sawant, who was an ayurvedic practitioner at a government hospital before joining politics, announced people would be given the anti-parasitic drug Ivermectin as a prophylactic because there were claims (unsubstantiated, according to the World Health Organisation) that it mitigated the severity of the illness.

Even as the Opposition assailed the government’s “disastrous” pandemic management, a blame game ensued between Sawant and Health Minister Vishwajit Rane.

Rane is the son of Pratapsinh Rane, a former CM from the Congress.

Rane junior was elected on a Congress ticket in the 2017 polls but shortly thereafter resigned to join the BJP that made him a minister in the Manohar Parrikar government.

Rane told the media that Sawant was “misguided” and demanded a high court probe into the O2 crisis.

The high court of Bombay in Goa ticked off Sawant and Rane over their spat, observing: “This is not the time for politics.”

The state BJP supported the chief minister.

A source alleged: “It’s unfair to blame Sawant because the oxygen scarcity was avoidable… Despite the open tender, Rane gave the orders to one outlet which was unable to meet the demand. But Rane got away because he has strong connections in Delhi.”

But Sadanand Shet Tanavade, Goa BJP president, maintained that by the time the election is held (February-March 2022), “We will overcome the pandemic-created negativity. We are reaching out to people with the messages and programmes that have come from the central BJP.”

However, another BJP source said: “It depends on how severe the next wave is and whether Sawant and Rane set aside their egos and work together.”

If pandemic (mis)management threatened to dominate Goa’s electoral discourse, the BJP is up against a deeper structural issue in its organisation, created by the fact that a majority of the legislature party and the ministerial council is made up of Congress defectors, disparagingly referred to by the Opposition as “imports”.

A Panjim-based political observer said: “At least 10 of them, including Rane, are fieflords who can’t be upstaged easily. The BJP’s rank-and-file are upset, as are the older leaders.”

The feelings were reflected in recent statements from BJP veterans.

Laxmikant Parsekar, former CM, was quoted in a Goa daily saying that while the BJP might have formed the government by “importing” MLAs, he wasn’t “ready to accept that the party grew with the help of the imports”.

Francis D’Souza, one of the first Catholics to join the BJP and burnish its “pro-minority” standing, said in one of his final statements before his death in February 2019: “How long will you do it (importing renegades)? One or two are okay. We were 13, then 14, 15, 16 now; it is ridiculous. All this will affect party MLAs who worked hard to get themselves re-elected.”

Among Congress and Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party heavyweights currently in the BJP are Rane, Mauvin Godinho, Pandurang Madkaikar, Subhash Shirodkar, and Dayanand Sopte.

The MGP was a former BJP ally until the BJP spirited away two of its legislators in 2017.

Narendra Sawaikar, Goa BJP general secretary, brushed aside the controversy over “imports”.

“Our party is in power for two terms and naturally there are aspirants," he said.

Asked if the political migrants will be given tickets, Tanavade said: “They are ready to contest on our symbol.”

But despite an unassailable strength of 27 in a 40-member assembly, the party couldn’t resist poaching on regional parties amid the pandemic.

The Goa Forward Party, helmed by Vijai Sardessai, which has only three MLAs, was prey.

The BJP’s move to break the GFP came days after the regional party petitioned the state Lokayukta for a probe into the alleged diversion of Covid relief funds for labourers to the pockets of BJP workers and supporters.

Like other states, Goa’s economy -- already impacted by the closure on mining after a Supreme Court order -- took a beating during the pandemic.

The sale of Tito, the iconic go-to place for party animals owned by Ricardo Joseph D’ Souza, symbolised a deeper malaise that beset its economy -- “harassment” by state agencies in stressed-out times.

D’Souza complained that the Coastal Regulations Zone and the Planning and Development Authority, as well as block development officers and panchayats, targeted Tito for “petty” reasons.

While the BJP decided to contest the polls under Sawant’s leadership, B L Santhosh, general secretary (organisation), and CT Ravi, national Goa prabhari, visit the state frequently to straighten out the in-house issues.

“Sawant is a young and clean face who is popular in villages among Hindus. He’s in his second term as an MLA and doesn’t carry baggage,” a political observer said. 

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Radhika Ramaseshan in New Delhi
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