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Monday, February 6, 2017

Mindless activism is the root of Goa’s political stasis

Contemplating the election just completed in Goa, my mind wandered to a Sunday afternoon a few years ago. At lunch in a friend’s place near Panjim, I found myself under assault by an “activist”. He challenged my assessment that the “India against Corruption” protest, then in full flower, was just another anti-Congress formation. My interlocutor was the well-spoken scion of an influential Goan family and he took umbrage at my assertion that Anna Hazare, the figure head of the protest, was a congenital publicity hound.

Sadly, the conversation degenerated into a diatribe with the activist scolding me for my views on politics, economics and society. There was not much subtlety in his charge that people such as I must be held responsible for the state of affairs in India, tainted as it is with political corruption, skewed economic priorities and consumerist societal norms.

Fast forward to 2014, post the Hazare protest: A group of “activists” led by Arvind Kejriwal emerged to form the Aam Aadmi Party. Kejriwal’s group did surprisingly well in the ensuing elections to the assembly and was able to form a government with support from the Congress. The rest is history.

Last year, when AAP announced it would contest elections in Goa, which is a particularly fecund political environment for activism, I was not surprised. All these years of living in the haven, I was witness to the mindless activism that challenged the long-reigning Congress on any and every development scheme or project. Bringing to bear their networking skills and media clout, activists went hammer and tongs after the Congress on often unsubstantiated charges of corruption. In the event, they did not change the fluid and corrupt politics in the state or root out corruption; they ensured the rise of the BJP.

The entry of AAP to Goa politics has been made possible by the cosy fit with local activists. Coasting on word-of-mouth publicity, AAP brought to bear its propaganda skills to project a victory in the just-completed election to the assembly. Many people, with a foot in both places, Delhi and Goa, are understandably appalled. In their view, Goans have regarded them with hostility as outsiders spoiling the Goan environment with their South Delhi ways. But Goans see no contradiction in embracing a Delhi-centric political party with roots in the rough-and-ready exurban areas of the National Capital Region.

This election was held against a national backdrop in which there is a massive pushback against the BJP and a growing disenchantment with the politics of AAP. Sensing this, the Congress put in place ambitious revival plans. It opted for a seat-sharing arrangement with: Two seats for Goa Forward, a year-old party pledged to defeat the BJP; one for Atanasio Monserrate’s United Goan, a party sworn to keep the secular vote from splitting; and it has decided to support an independent candidate.

Aside of the seat sharing arrangement, the Congress is likely to benefit from a split in the BJP vote. This is because of an alliance between Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, Shiv Sena and Goa Suraksha Manch, a new party floated by a rebel RSS member, Subhash Velingkar, head of the influential Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch. This Right-wing alliance, which had been instrumental in the BJP victory in 2012, threatens to jerk the rug from under the BJP.

The Congress sources in Goa and Delhi say they have long believed Kejriwal’s AAP was a front floated by the saffronistas to divide the Congress vote, especially in two-way contests as in Punjab and Goa. Their response to the split in the BJP vote in Goa is a nudge and a wink to suggest the Congress stands to make a huge gain because this split will take more votes from the BJP than AAP will from the Congress.

Though polls predict a hung assembly, the mood in the Congress camp is upbeat.


(An edited version of this post will appear in http://hindustantimes.com, February 6, 2017.)

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