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Panaji’s place in the sun

  • The capital of Goa is considered the bellwether seat in Indian politics
  • The death of Manohar Parrikar means the 19 May bypoll, and the state’s political future, is wide open

Panaji’s Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church.
Panaji’s Our Lady of Immaculate Conception church. (Photo: Alamy)

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In 2012, the late Manohar Parrikar stormed to dominance in Goa with an unprecedented majority in the state legislature, amidst an extraordinary annihilation of the political framework which had prevailed for decades. At the inauguration of his new, all-powerful government in Panaji— the pocket-sized capital that had been his stronghold since 1994—the jubilant consensus amongst the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) national leadership packing the stage was that this “new formula” presaged what would play out in the rest of the country.

The late Manohar Parrikar
The late Manohar Parrikar (Photo: AFP)

When exactly that happened in 2014 under Narendra Modi, it escaped no one’s attention, to the extent that Parrikar was compelled to leave the defence ministry in Delhi in 2017 to ensure retention of power in his home state. On 19 May, during the final phase of the Lok Sabha election, national attention will again focus on the very local Panaji bypoll to take his place in the state’s legislative assembly, with Goa’s political alignment widely considered to hang in the balance.Will India’s smallest state play bellwether to the nation once again?

Examine the cast of characters assembled against each other in Panaji, and it’s uncanny how Parrikar’s legacy still pervades. The BJP’s Sidharth Kuncalienker, his long-time aide, narrowly found favour at the last minute against Utpal Parrikar, the late MLA’s oldest son. The Congress is represented by Atanasio “Babush” Monserrate, who has controlled the next-door constituency of Taleigao for many years, but assumed much greater significance only after being appointed minister of town and country planning in Parrikar’s cabinet in 2002. Another contender is Subhash Velingkar of the new Goa Suraksha Manch (GSM), who was closely aligned with Parikkar until 2016, when an acrimonious falling out led to him being sacked from the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (which he left vowing revenge against his former ally). Finally, there is Valmiki Naik, representing the Aam Aadmi Party—which has yet to win any election in Goa—whose policy positions are radically different, but who nonetheless closely resembles the incipient, attractive Parrikar of the 1990s in terms of his first-rate education, easy-going manner, and promise of unusual competence.

Overwhelming the backdrop for these varied candidates is again the legacy of the last 25 years, when there was nothing resembling serious opposition to Parrikar’s coalition of supporters in Goa’s tiny capital. Even when he left for Delhi for two years, he left no one in any doubt that all important matters would still be settled by him, and from then on startled the country by effectively commuting to his job, heading home every weekend to Panaji. Famously, on the day Narendra Modi announced the now-controversial agreement to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets in Paris (on 10 April 2015), his defence minister was inaugurating a government-operated fish stall in Panaji, where he was pictured happily handling a chonak, the giant sea perch most beloved to Goan palates.

An ‘offshore’ casino on the Mandovi river. Casinos are an important issue in the forthcoming Panaji bypoll.
An ‘offshore’ casino on the Mandovi river. Casinos are an important issue in the forthcoming Panaji bypoll. (Photo: Alamy)

Media commentators across the country seized this chance to portray Parrikar as a yokel out of his depth in the national capital. But back home, the engagement played out very differently. It was precisely this brand of unerring retail politics that made him unassailable in the state.

Yet there are considerable costs to unquestioned power, and all of those can be seen in Parrikar’s career beyond his phenomenal personal appeal. The Indian Institute of Technology-trained engineer had great regard for his own administrative capabilities, and concentrated power in his own hands to an extent that quite resembles and even exceeds Modi. Even on his deathbed, he still held some 30 separate portfolios, and Kuncalienker was constantly reassuring people that the chief minister remained in excellent condition to handle his duties. This was par for the course for the ubiquitous assistant, who had previously gone so far as to claim that Parrikar had an advantage in monitoring Goa from his hospital bed in New York—where he was undergoing treatment for advanced pancreatic cancer—because the time difference allowed “24-hour governance”.

Just as much as Kuncalienker benefitted while his mentor was alive, the 43-year-old acolyte now stands exposed. There is no one to protect him from the fallout of what most Goans consider highly dubious actions as Parrikar’s appointee to several important roles, including as vice-chairman of the Goa State Infrastructure Development Corporation. Of special relevance to this election is his tenure as director of Imagine Panaji Smart City Development—the widely reviled 1,000 crore project that kicked off in 2016 and pursued one wildly ridiculous idea after another, from hundreds of high-resolution cameras “with facial recognition” to “RFID-based trash identification”. One factor uniting all the other contenders is the conviction that Smart City is a criminal scam, and Kuncalienker is responsible for perpetrating it.

20 crore for a headquarters for Smart City? I call this looting,” said Babush Monserrate a few days ago, in a television interview with Goan journalist Sandesh Prabhudesai, in which he (Monserrate) contrasted his real estate development work in Taleigao with the steady deterioration of Panaji just down the road.

The flamboyant Monserrate has represented five parties, and contested from three constituencies. He has also repeatedly faced serious criminal charges, including rape and attacking the Panaji police station with a mob. Most notably, during his tenure as minister of town and country planning, so much land was slated to be converted for commercial use that it provoked state-wide protests which resulted in the Regional Plan being cancelled in 2007.

Despite this—as well as many allegations of intimidation tactics in Taleigao—Monserrate is considered the front-runner in the Panaji bypoll. His loyalists already control the city’s municipal corporation, and many stakeholders believe only he has the wherewithal to fight for the city’s interests. Monserrate himself has no doubts. He told Prabhudesai that “there is nobody who can stop me” when it comes to sticking up for Panaji.

But past record indicates this weathervane politician will probably go where his own perceived interests lie. In fact, this has already occurred with regard to the issue suffusing every aspect of Panaji’s election, which is the giant, neon-blinking gambling boats ranged imposingly all along the city’s heritage waterfront. All parties, now bafflingly including the BJP which adamantly supported them all through its regime, have declared their intent to end the cycle of cynical extensions handed out year after year—and expel casinos permanently. But just last week, the “chief visionary officer and mentor” to the newest gambling boat, Narinder Punj, told the media that the casinos cannot be moved, no matter what the political rhetoric.

“Casinos have been an issue in every election. In Panaji, you have Babush Monserrate, who is saying within 100 days I am going to get casinos out. We heard that from Parrikar. Parrikar used to stand outside the Caravela with a mashal (flame-torch). Everybody’s done it.” Soon afterwards, as though on cue, Monserrate admitted he did not actually support the Congress party pledge to eject the casinos from the Mandovi.

Casinos are one of the reasons the RSS in Goa found itself at loggerheads with Manohar Parrikar. As the leader of the opposition, the long-time pracharak called them “social evils” and “dens of vice”. Even after being elected, he said their “bad money”, which came to the government as taxes and fees, would never be used for anything but homes for the aged. However, barely 20 days into his 2014 administration, he cut entry fees from 2,000 to just 500. Since then, it has been open season for gambling, with hugely detrimental results for Goa. Velingkar speaks for Panaji’s moral opprobrium when he says: “Casinos have destroyed the city with their sheer presence, and with the ethical and social ills they propagate. I promise to do away with them.”

Velingkar’s GSM is a curious political concoction. Its main plank—removing state subsidies for English-language schools—is a sure loser, without any perceptible support in Panaji. But he has considerable personal standing as a man who can be relied on to keep his word, and who could restore some rectitude to state politics. While he is unlikely to get many Catholic or Muslim votes (the two minorities comprise approximately 35% of the electorate), he could well find significant support among Hindus, who may choose him as the most ethical option, considering the strong possibility that he will inevitably ally with the BJP. Considering that Monserrate was previously with the BJP and just recently quit the Goa Forward Party, which is also aligned with the ruling party, that leaves only Valmiki Naik of AAP, who, sensing this difference and potential advantage, has already issued a sworn affidavit that he will “never join or ally with the BJP”.

All the paradoxes of AAP outside Delhi are embodied in this 42-year-old, who has formulated by far the most progressive and promising campaign manifesto, with excellent ideas for everything from climate change to public health. Ask any citizen of Panaji about any of them, or indeed all, and there is literally not a single person who expresses doubt that these are excellent plans that deserve support. Yet, there is no such public wave of admission anyone will vote that way. Instead, there’s the dull shake of the head, and mutterings of “what’s the use. Valmiki can’t do it by himself. He’s too much of a gentleman. We need our own goonda in this age of goonda-raj.” There’s no doubt Naik has a solid shot at winning the vote, with an extremely weak BJP candidate, and two other deeply divisive opponents, but it’s equally true that his biggest challenges will begin then.

It’s not just him, of course. No matter what happens at the Centre, it’s clear Goa now faces fiendishly thorny existential challenges. Tourism is in a state of disintegration, as the once-beautiful coastline and interior villages are being systematically devastated by endless waves of budget tourists. Each tourist season fetches dramatically diminishing returns, and an accompanying environmental collapse of far-reaching significance.

There’s a garbage crisis, a water crisis, a huge and growing law-and-order problem. Many believe the next census will reveal the stunning reality that native Goans are no more than 40% of the total population. The pluralistic, open-minded and tolerant idea of Goa that attracts so many people from the subcontinent and around the world seems to be in its death throes.

Can that change? Here, it is interesting to note that Goa’s bellwether status in 21st century Indian politics reflects the 19th century—even then, Panaji was the centrepiece of action. Back in 1847, the polyglot scholar and British soldier (and later Victorian icon) Richard Burton sailed up the Mandovi to express nothing but horror at this place where the Indians he encountered considered themselves his equal. This was the effect of the previous century’s Pombaline reforms, which steadily delivered equal rights to all subjects under the Portuguese flag, wherever they lived. In his hilarious, albeit relentlessly racist book Goa And The Blue Mountains, he writes that the Goan sense of “equality allows them to indulge in a favourite independence of manner utterly at variance with our Anglo-Indian notions concerning the proper demeanour of a native towards a European”.

The assertive Panaji residents Burton encountered were doing what no colonized Indians had ever done: building a self-confident, modern, global city for themselves, with the first public library in Asia, the first girls’ school of the subcontinent, and first-rate social, cultural and civic institutions meant for all citizens. It was an example cities across the subcontinent learnt from and emulated as the world moved towards decolonization.

This week, as we enter another era altogether, it’s worth paying attention to little Panaji. What has happened here before could very well happen again.

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