They may be in power together, but the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) is the pet peeve of Congress leaders in Maharashtra. They grumble that the Sharad Pawar-led party, which is its senior ally in the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) regime, is edging out the Congress by gradually eating into its political base.
Congress leaders in neighbouring Goa may be experiencing a similar sense of déjà vu. The NCP’s spectre may soon be haunting the Congress in the tiny coastal state, where the Grand Old Party has some hopes for revival.
The NCP has floated a plan for a Maharashtra-like ‘Maha Aghadi’ or grand alliance to take on the ruling Pramod Sawant-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime in Goa. To consolidate the anti-incumbency forces in the state, which has moved from being a bipolar system to a fractured polity dominated by expedient post-poll coalitions, the NCP is seeking to unify smaller and regional parties.
More worryingly for the Congress, which is preparing to go it alone in the assembly elections due in mid-2022, the NCP is seeking an honourable seat sharing deal, failing which it has threatened to walk its own path. The NCP has deployed senior leader and former Union minister Praful Patel to lead the charge.
For the record, the NCP has just one legislator — former chief minister and Benaulim strongman Churchill Alemao, who has been in and out of parties like the Congress, Save Goa Front, Trinamool Congress, and more famously, owns the Churchill Brothers football club. In 2017, when the BJP pulled off a coup by forming a government under then defence minister, the late Manohar Parrikar despite being the second-largest party after the Congress, Alemao had supported the BJP.
The idea of an NCP-led grand alliance has led to trepidation among Congress leaders who claim that this front may eventually eat into the pro-Congress and anti-incumbency votes much like smaller formations playing a spoiler for the opposition ‘Mahagathbandhan’ in Bihar. While the Congress is girding its loins to take on the BJP in all 40 constituencies, its leaders claim seat adjustments with the NCP, which has little presence on the grounds, will be counter-productive.
While the MVA in Maharashtra is a post-poll formation, the proposed Maha Aghadi in Goa is a pre-election idea. As a veteran Congressman admits, the idea of a pre-poll alliance is fraught with its own tensions in a state which has just 40 seats in a unicameral legislature and an average voter cohort of just around 30,000 per constituency, with local Bahubalis and rebels threatening to disrupt the calculations.
The fear of the BJP trying to decimate all political formations is a sentiment cutting across all parties, and may form the glue for this grand alliance, claim NCP leaders. The Shiv Sena, which has been unable to strike roots in Goa despite its presence in Maharashtra, which has strong economic and cultural links with the state, also wants to be part of this front.
NCP sources say they are trying to attract a section of Congress legislators from the Roman Catholic Christian community who defected to the BJP, but find the party’s politics and majoritarian agenda at odds with their minority vote base.
A section of Congress leaders in Goa are said to have strong reservations to the return of these prodigals into the party, and hence the NCP may be their likely port of call before the assembly polls.
Political turbulence and instability in the 1990s decade saw 13 chief ministers being sworn in, punctuated with spells of President’s rule, with some like Alemao and Ravi Naik holding office for just 18 and six days respectively. The advent of coalition politics saw parties like the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), which despite being a far cry from the days of yore, assumed the role of kingmakers.
In the 2017 assembly elections, the BJP was worsted at the hustings with just 13 seats. Laxmikant Parsekar, who was Parrikar’s replacement as chief minister, lost from his Mandrem constituency. The Congress emerged as the single-largest party with 17 of 40 seats in the hung House. However, some deft manoeuvring by the BJP carried the day. Catching the Congress unawares, Parrikar came to power with support from the MGP (3), independents (3), NCP (1) and three legislators from the Goa Forward Party (GFP) of former Youth Congress leader Vijai Sardesai, which stresses on the Goan identity being under siege.
The BJP steadily poached on the Congress’ flock, beginning with Valpoi MLA Vishwajit Rane, the son of Pratapsinh Rane, the six-term Congress chief minister, who became the health minister. Later, Subhash Shirodkar (Shiroda) and Dayanand Sopte, who emerged as a giant-killer trouncing then chief minister Parsekar, jumped ship.
However, Parrikar’s death by pancreatic cancer in 2019 saw assembly speaker Dr Pramod Sawant being elevated to the post. In July last year, Sawant pulled off a coup by weaning away 10 of the 15 Congress legislators, including leader of opposition Chandrakant (Babu) Kavlekar. Two of the three legislators from BJP ally MGP also joined the party. Sardesai and the MGP’s Sudin Dhavalikar, who were Sawant’s deputies, were dropped. The Congress was left licking its wounds, with just five legislators in the assembly, including four former chief ministers —Pratapsinh Rane, Ravi Naik, Luizinho Faleiro, and Digambar Kamat.
Despite these setbacks, the Congress fancies its chances in the coming assembly polls. The Catholics, who form around a fourth of the population, are seen as core voters of the Congress. Though the BJP has tried to develop an auxiliary constituency among them, the rising wave of majoritarian assertion may lead to these voters in the literate and politically-aware state with upper-middle class sensibilities consolidating with the Congress.
In May last year, the Congress had also wrested the prestigious Panaji assembly seat in the bypolls necessitated by Parrikar’s death, with its Atanasio (Babush) Monserrate defeating the BJP’s Siddharth Kuncalienker. Though Monserrate defected to the BJP later, this defeat had marked the end of the BJP’s 25-year reign over the state capital. The BJP also lost one of the two Lok Sabha seats in Goa, with former chief minister Francisco Sardinha trouncing sitting MP Narendra Savaikar.
Though the BJP has tried to strike its own unique social engineering model with a Maratha as the chief minister and a Dalit (Manohar aka Babu Ajgaonkar, a MGP defector) and a Dhangar (former Congressman Kavlekar) as his deputies, it may be fraying at the edges. Growing nativist consolidation against economic migrants, rising disgruntlement in the Bhandari caste, which is numerically the largest, and forms the nucleus of the BJP’s support base, and the entrenched Gaud Saraswat Brahmins (GSBs) feeling alienated from the power matrix, may give the Congress a much-needed opening.
The BJP’s accommodation of Congress defectors and Catholics is also said to have upset the core BJP voter and RSS cadre. In the Sawant cabinet, five of 12 ministers are Christians, including Congress defectors.
However, the fate of the line of battle drawn up by Congress may hinge on the course that the NCP’s proposal takes. For, as the saying goes, the best laid plans are a leap in the dark.
Disclaimer:Dhaval Kulkarni is a Mumbai-based journalist and author of ‘The Cousins Thackeray: Uddhav, Raj and the Shadow of their Senas.’ Views are personal.