Goa, Gone with the Wind

We Goans are often unfairly lampooned as happy go lucky, alcohol swigging, siesta loving, beach bums. I use the word 'we' cautiously since I truly haven¹t spent enough time in Goa nor can I speak fluent Konkani. But my late father remains the only Goa born Goan cricketer to play for India, enough reason I guess for me to qualify as an ‘honorary’ Goan. If you still believe that 'we' Goans are carefree and relaxed in our idyllic 'susegado' derived from the Portuguese word 'sossegado') lifestyle, then you just have to meet our politicians: the contrast between the natural beauty of Goa and the coarse ugliness of its politics could not be more stark.

Just observe what has happened in Goa this past week. Ten Congress MLAs from Goa have switched over to the ruling BJP government and within 48 hours three of them have been made ministers. In Karnataka, we have witnessed 'retail' defections, individual MLAs being poached in small groups and transported from one five star hotel to another amidst heavy security. In Goa, we are much more transparent in our dealings, so the ten MLAs made a clean break from the Congress and the next day, the 'wholesale' defectors were warmly greeted as conquering heroes by the BJP leadership in the national capital. Since the MLAs constituted two-thirds of the 15 member Congress legislative party, the anti-defection provisions did not apply.

So who are these 'prize catches' for the BJP? One of them Chandrakant Kavlekar, leader of the opposition, is now the deputy chief minister in the same government which till last week he was steadfastly opposing. Kavlekar has been accused of running an illegal 'Matka' gambling business across the Konkan region and his premises were raided in 2017 by the Goa police. The BJP has also accused him of benami land deals: now, as deputy chief minister, he presumably will enjoy complete immunity from prosecution.

Then, there is the even more colourful and controversial, Atanasio 'Babush' Monserrate, who faces serious charges of raping a minor in 2016. Barely two months ago, Babush won the prestigious Panaji by-election by defeating the right hand man of former Goa chief minister, the late Manohar Parikkar. It was an election that was projected as the BJP¹s attempt to preserve Parikkar¹s legacy as a forward-looking politician. During an acrimonious campaign, the BJP raised a 'Save Goa from Babush' slogan, pointing to his extended tryst with criminality. Today, Babush is set to be given the chairmanship of an important civic corporation even as his wife, Jennifer, who also defected with him, has been made a minister. It is almost as if by switching sides, Babush has gained a new-found political respectability.

It isn¹t just Babush: in state after state, the BJP has now chosen to either actively encourage or tacitly induce key opposition leaders to break away and embrace the lotus: it is almost a case of flaunt the party symbol and all your previous sins get washed away. Till he joined the party in 2015, Assam strongman Himanta Biswa Sarma was accused by the BJP of being involved in the multi-crore Saradha scam. Ditto the case with Mukul Roy in Bengal, once a close confidante of Mamata Banerjee, now the person who is driving the BJP campaign in the state. The moment they switched, the investigations into their alleged involvement slowed down. In Maharashtra, Narayan Rane, once accused by the BJP of embodying corruption in the state, is now a Rajya Sabha MP with BJP support. Last month, two Telugu Desam MPs from Andhra Pradesh, against whom the previous Modi government had initiated criminal cases for financial fraud, were welcomed into the BJP.

Where does this leave the BJP¹s lofty, oft-repeated claim of being a party with a difference? The BJP could well argue that a small-sized 40 member assembly like Goa is trapped in chronic instability: Goa, after all, has seen fourteen governments in 15 years between 1990 and 2005 and the BJP doesn¹t want to be dependent for its survival on the support of smaller parties and independents. But don¹t forget that the original Parikkar government was formed in 2017 with these very small parties, all of whose members were induced to support the government by being offered lucrative ministerial portfolios.

While a rampant BJP may take comfort in its growing footprint across the country, there are long term costs involved in seeking short-term gains. When you forge 'stable' governments through brazen exhibitions of political immorality ­ then be it in Goa today, Karnataka tomorrow or Arunachal and Manipur a few years ago -- then you cede the right to claim the moral high ground. Recall how the prime minister had roared at his first Red Fort independence day address in 2014: 'na khaoonga, na khane doonga¹ (I wont be bribed, nor will I let anyone take a bribe). Don't also forget the BJP¹s stirring slogan in its 2014 election campaign: 'Bahut hui Brashtrachari se maar, abki baar Modi sarkar' (enough of corruption, now time for a Modi-led government). How do the Monserrates and Kavlekars, the Roys and Ranes, fit in with this prime ministerial invocation to creating a freshly minted anti-corruption political culture?

Increasingly, the BJP appears to be mimicking the very political force it has replaced as the dominant party of our times. It was, after all, in the high noon of Indira Gandhi¹s rule in the 1970s and 1980s that opposition governments were routinely destabilized and dismissed and the 'Aya ram, Gaya Ram¹ culture was institutionalized. At the time, the BJP had led the opposition charge against the Indira government¹s political over-reach; today, the party stands exposed for blatantly following the Indira stylebook.

Sadly, we the so-called enlightened voters, also stand exposed for our glaring failure to collectively challenge those who have made defections a fine art. Most of Goa's defectors, for example, are supremely confident that they will be re-elected and that far from being ostracized, the voters of the state will reward them for their political cunning in joining hands with the winning side. In any case, the next election in Goa is almost three years away and by then, more options may emerge in this political powerplay and the 2019 defections will seem like a distant memory. Maybe, the time has come to consider a simple amendment to the anti-defection law: any MLA or MP who defects during their five year term, cannot be made a minister for the duration of that assembly. But who will dare bite the hand that feeds them?

Post-script: Post-script: The art of defections was initiated in Haryana when an MLA Gaya Lal changed parties three times in a day in 1967. Goa still hasn’t matched that individual record but collectively we have clearly shown the way to the rest of the country when it comes to political turncoats. Maybe it is time to change ‘Aya Ram, Gaya Ram’ to ‘Aya Monserrate, Gaya Monserrate’ and relieve Haryana of the ignominy of being indelibly associated with shifting political loyalties for way too long.

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