Alexandre Moniz Barbosa
On a day when the India Meteorological Department had warned of an orange alert in Goa, the rains stayed away, but there came instead a deluge of political developments that threatened to drown the Congress in the state. The move was serious enough for the party to take steps that it rarely does – strip Michael Lobo of the post of the Leader of the Opposition, call its former chief minister Digambar Kamat a key conspirator in the move to break the Congress and file disqualification petitions before the Speaker of the House against these two MLAs for anti-party activities.
Congress reacted quickly and sharply, forcing the MLAs whose spines had curved towards the Bharatiya Janata Party to straighten their backs and return to the parent party. A day after the crisis, all Congress MLAs, with the exception of Kamat, met at the Congress office to elect a new party leader who would also be the leader of the opposition. The revolt had fizzled out. There is no guarantee that it will not recur in the weeks or even months ahead, the term of the current Assembly will end only in March 2027, so there is time aplenty for new equations to emerge but for the present, the Goa unit of the Congress has displayed a side that it was not otherwise known for.
Glowing in the light of having stopped the party MLAs from crossing over, Congress leader Mukul Wasnik who was air dashed to Goa to handle the crisis said, “Congress MLAs have set an example for the country on how to foil the illegitimate attempts of the BJP to poach Congress legislators.”
Wasnik, however, came in later. On July 10 when the revolt was spilling over it was Dinesh Gundu Rao, the Congressman who holds charge of the party affairs, and Amit Patkar the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee president, who were fighting the revolt and stopped it from happening.
For a proper perspective of the issue, we will have to go back to March 2022 when the election results were declared. Congress didn’t expect to sit in the opposition. It believed that it would get a majority of its own and return to the treasury benches after a decade in opposition. The voters had a different idea. BJP with 20 seats reached, but didn’t cross the halfway mark, while Congress had to be content with 11, other parties sharing the remaining nine seats. BJP, with three Independents and two MLAs of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party formed the government. The restlessness in the Congress was obvious right from that day and an exodus – to circumvent the anti-defection law one needs two-thirds of the legislative party to break away – was always on the cards.
However, Goa that in the past has gained quite some notoriety for toppling games, has in recent times been going the other way, with defections to strengthen the government and weaken the opposition. It was always obvious that if there was another defection happening, then it would be from the opposition Congress to the governing BJP and not vice versa.
A weakened opposition is definitely not a healthy trend for a democracy as such a form of government requires a strong and vibrant opposition. Will Congress, now with a new leader of the opposition, be able to play that role in the Goa Assembly? In the eyes of the electorate, a large section of the Congress MLAs, those who attempted to split the party, are now compromised. Their performance in the Assembly will be viewed critically to gauge whether their externally straightened backs are inwardly still bent towards the BJP. Don’t forget that a few weeks ago Lobo, then the leader of the opposition, had backed the government’s decision to postpone the panchayat polls, a decision that the highest courts have dismissed.
Against this background of being a very weak party, Congress showing the gumption to take on the two of the biggest names among its MLAs – Lobo and Kamat – displays a new side hitherto unseen. It has currently paused the revolt. The term paused has been judiciously used here as the future is unclear, but, currently, Congress is the winner. It has stopped a rebellion, something that it has not been able to manage in the past and for its own sake has to convert this into a positive and a foundation on which to grow. For the first time, Goa has seen the Congress acting sternly, refusing to be dictated to by its MLAs, and instead putting its conditions to the legislators. That’s an action that it has to be converted into a positive narrative for the party and not just in Goa but across the country. In a country-wide scenario where it is being battered, this is a straw it can to clutch to.
Just this, however, does not give Congress a new lease of life in Goa, where it has seen its vote share deplete with every election. In two decades, from a high of 37.42 per cent share of votes in the election of 2002 it fell to 23.46 per cent in 2022. The share it has lost has been claimed by other parties – regional and national – and reclaiming it will be the most difficult task before the party. Its current success will keep it on a high only till the next attempt at defections, as from current indications the worst of this particular storm is over. But for how long? That is a question that neither the Congress nor its MLAs will be in a position to answer.
The party therefore will have to be on the alert at all times, for more storms that could be brewing. And, that may not be so easy. The group that was revolting will have learnt its lesson. The next attempt at defections will be kept a closely-guarded secret and Congress may not have the time to react in the manner it did this time. It has gained an advantage but how long will it last only time will tell.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author)