TMC in Goa: Feet not quite on the ground
Mamata Banerjee’s party, flying high in Goa, has been grounded by scepticism
Mamata Banerjee’s Goa campaign is built more on bravado than on strength. She has travelled from the east to the west to prove that if she can defeat the BJP in Bengal, she can defeat it anywhere. But then every state is not Bengal.
She has not given herself too much time either. Who has built a political party in a new state in a hundred days? A political party that claims itself to be capable enough to capture power in the next sixty days?
Even if she has a magic wand, the way she has used it is totally contrary to the way she did it in her own state. There she worked hard for years to build an organisation. She was on the street, on the ground. So much so she acquired the image of a ‘streetfighter’. In sharp contrast, she is in the political sky and not on the political ground of Goa. She did not have much time before 2024 either; so she decided to build the party from the top. She would recruit leaders first; workers would follow.
Political loyalty in Goa, as elsewhere, is like gold: some preserve it for life, some sell it when they can get a good price. During the months before an election, the loyalty-bazaar gets bustling with more sellers and buyers. There are legislators who find avenues of upward mobility blocked in their own party; there are organisational leaders who are denied nomination as party’s candidates in elections: they sell their gold.
Mamata’s men began to haunt the Goa bazaar. They were overjoyed when in their very initial bargains they got Luizinho Faleiro, a veteran Congressman who had been a chief minister, the party’s state president and an all-India general secretary. The price he demanded was a Rajya Sabha seat, which Mamata agreed to pay, because she saw him as a central pillar on which she could build her castle in Goa.
It has since proven to be an overestimation. Luizinho Faleiro does have his followers and has been elected an MLA several times from his home constituency of Navelim, but he lacks a pan-Goa appeal. He cannot draw crowds. His performance as chief minister was far from impressive and his tenure as Goa Pradesh Congress Committee president exposed his poor leadership skills.
Hunting for more pillars, Mamata’s men held negotiations with several leading politicians across parties—Prashant Kishor, the Indian Political Action Committee (IPAC) head and her election strategist, acting as her chief ambassador and negotiator—but in most of the cases the deal could not work out, because the target often priced himself extravagantly.
There was one who wanted to be declared as the chief minister candidate of the party. Mamata’s men shrewdly calculated that if they projected anyone as the chief minister candidate, he might repel others. The man might also carry historical baggage. It was better to leave the leadership issue open to hook more leaders.
Then there was the Goa Forward Party, a party with three MLAs, with whom Mamata’s negotiators held several rounds of discussions. They could have been a handsome catch, but the GFP leader Vijay Sardesai refused to merge his party with Trinamool Congress. He insisted on an alliance, and what was more, on a number of seats that the negotiators were not willing to give him.
By the third week of December, after three months of relentless shopping, Trinamool Congress had got three MLAs—three precast pillars to build the party’s castle in Goa. It was not an insignificant gain for a party that had started with zero presence in the state. Yet it remained doubtful how strong and reliable those pillars were going to be. Other than Luizinho Faleiro, they roped in Alexio Reginaldo Lourenco from Congress and Churchill Alemao from the Nationalist Congress Party. Neither has any influence beyond their own constituencies.
And all the three MLAs the Trinamool Congress has got are Christians. That is an asset as well as a liability for the party. As a party known for defending the interests of religious minorities it would seem natural for it to start building its base with Christians, who are the largest religious minority in Goa. However, there it has to compete with the Congress. The Christians have been largely with the Congress for the past several years, and have come even closer in the years of ascendancy of the BJP.
Growing vigilantism targeting Christians across the country has alienated even the small section of Goan Christians who voted for the BJP in the past few elections owing to their admiration for Manohar Parrikar. The present Chief Minister Pramod Sawant’s declaration that he would restore the temples destroyed by the Portuguese has only deepened their alienation. They know how the BJP has raked up skeletons from history to fill Hindus with fear and hatred of Muslims. They shudder at the thought of the same happening to them.
The threat to the Christians is big, and therefore they are likely to stay on with the Congress which has a wide base in the state, instead of the Trinamool Congress which, despite its strong secular credentials, is a new and small party and has no roots and may end up only with a marginal presence.
An additional disadvantage for the Trinamool Congress is that it is seen as a party of outsiders. Mamata has tried telling Goans, “I may be branded an outsider, but I want to tell you that I have not come here to become your chief minister. Your government will be run by your own people.”
But it is not working. Also, the perception is unmistakable among Goans that she has not come to improve their lives but her own. Her Goa campaign is not for Goa, they believe, but one more step in the ladder leading to Delhi.
Views are personal
(The writer is a distinguished journalist and author and was the first Reuters Fellow from India at Oxford)
(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)