With eight of its 11 MLAs in Goa joining the BJP on Wednesday, the Congress party faced a second major instance of defection in the state in the past three-and-a-half years of BJP rule under Chief Minister Pramod Sawant.
Despite his personal winning margin having shrunk to 666 votes in this year’s Assembly election, the BJP’s central leadership had decided to keep Sawant as Goa’s Chief Minister. He was, however, not without a challenger. Until the day Sawant was declared Chief Minister for a second time in March, state Health Minister Vishwajit Rane was very much in the reckoning for the top job. Tensions between Sawant and Rane have been no secret in Goa’s politics, and spilt over during the time the state was reeling under a crisis in the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic amid deaths of patients in the Goa Medical College in May 2021. Of late, there have been fewer manifestations of these tensions.
The latest defection of Congress MLAs, which follows a similar move by 10 of the party’s Goa MLAs in 2019, is likely to cement Sawant’s position as the BJP’s top leader in the coastal state. When Sawant welcomed the Congress defectors into the party fold at the BJP headquarters in Panaji on Wednesday, he was asked if raising the BJP’s tally in the 40-member House from 20 to 28 gave him an advantage. “I am saying this again. The BJP is a party that has a central leadership. We are not a regional party. We are constantly working in the interest of the country,” he responded.
In July, when an attempt at the defection that came through on Wednesday was foiled, Sawant had said that the BJP had a stable government in Goa and did not need any more MLAs. On Wednesday, he said, “If people want to come and join us, they are welcome.” Asked if any of the newly inducted MLAs would be accommodated in his Cabinet, he said, “That we will see. They have been accommodated in the party. They have joined us unconditionally.”
That this decision was taken with an eye on the 2024 Lok Sabha polls was apparent when Sawant said, “…the BJP’s foundation in Goa has been strengthened. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2024, we will definitely win both the Parliamentary seats.”
The BJP has been determined to wrest the South Goa parliamentary seat from the Congress. The entry of former chief minister and eight-time Margao MLA Digambar Kamat into the BJP fold gave fresh wind to speculation that he could be the party’s candidate from South Goa in 2024.
Asked on Wednesday if a Cabinet berth or a ticket to contest the parliamentary election from South Goa were among his expectations on his return to the BJP, Kamat said, “I am such a senior leader. I have no expectations. I have joined them unconditionally.”
Making inroads into the Catholic-dominated Salcete taluka has been among the BJP’s main challenges in South Goa. However, in the last Assembly election, with Opposition votes split between the Congress, AAP and TMC, the BJP won the Navelim seat and secured one MLA in Salcete, which is spread out over eight Assembly constituencies. With the addition of former minister Aleixo Sequeira to the BJP on Wednesday, the saffron party may also be hopeful of securing more votes from the Nuvem Assembly constituency, which is also in Salcete. With the addition of four Catholic MLAs — three in North Goa and one in the South — the number of Catholic MLAs in the BJP climbed from five to nine.
The BJP, which formed the government in the state with the support of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and three Independents, has the support of two Independent Catholic MLAs from Salcete.
Goa BJP president Sadanand Tanavade said that Kamat’s entry into the party would help the BJP in Margao, the majority-dominated constituency of Salcete. “In Margao, this will definitely help us. He has been an MLA eight times.”
“Leaders of other parties have seen the good work done by the BJP government in Goa and at the Centre under the leadership of PM Modi. This is happening all over the country. More and more leaders want to join the BJP because they have seen our work,” Tanavade said.
While mid-term changes in leadership are not alien to BJP-governed states, Sawant may have put speculation over this to rest in Goa with Wednesday’s events coming on the back of comfortably forming a government in March and scoring big in the panchayat elections in the state in August.