POLITICS
25/09/2018 7:51 AM IST | Updated 25/09/2018 8:43 AM IST

How The BJP’s Man In Goa, Manohar Parrikar, Went From Kar Sevak To Chief Minister

The IIT Bombay alumnus who travelled to Ayodhya for the Babri Masjid demolition brought the right-wing BJP to power in a state that celebrated its acceptance of different cultures.

Amit Dave / Reuters
Parrikar resigned as defence minister last year so that the BJP could form a government in Goa under his leadership.

On Sunday, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Amit Shah said that Manohar Parrikar, who is currently being treated for advanced pancreatic cancer, will remain the chief minister of Goa. The opposition Congress had staked claim to power in the 62-year-old's absence, and even the BJP's allies were growing impatient at the delay in finding a "long-term" solution.

While it is not clear when Parrikar will be able to take charge of Goa again, what is evident is that the BJP is struggling to handle its leadership vacuum in the state. This doesn't come as a surprise—after all, Parrikar resigned as defence minister last year so that the BJP could form a government in Goa under his leadership. But how did the IIT Bombay alumnus emerge as the go-to man for a right-wing party in a state that celebrated its acceptance of different cultures? And how has that acceptance changed under his watch?

Ayodhya To Panjim

On a winter afternoon in 1992, Parrikar and three others entered the press room of the Panjim secretariat, which faces the Mandovi river, to recount their experience of travelling as kar sevaks to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Parrikar was mostly silent during that informal press interaction. At the time, Goa was distinctly cocooned from all communal bedlam—minority baiting was unheard of. In a state that was then fiercely proud of its live-and-let-live amity and syncretic culture, it was considered uncultured, uncool and un-Goan to publicly speak of religious differences with anything less than respect.

Twenty six years later, most of those values stand diluted. In 2006, a madrasa was demolished and the houses of Muslims attacked over three days, while 40 accused, including two BJP office bearers, were acquitted by a court for lack of evidence.The Sanatan Sanstha, which was investigated in a bomb blast in Margao in 2009, operates proudly out of its headquarters in the temple taluk of Ponda. Its main political patron Ramkrishna Sudin Dhavalikar, a five-time MLA from Marcaim, was proposed to become Parrikar's successor, and Sanatan Prabhat, the Sanstha's daily newspaper, has been getting Goa government advertisements for years.

It was in 1994 that Parrikar and the BJP first entered the Goa Assembly. With 39-year-old Parrikar were his fellow RSS cadre Shripad Naik (currently the Union minister for AYUSH) and Digambar Kamat (who rejoined the Congress in 2005 and later became chief minister). The RSS was a fledgling force in the state then, while the soft-saffron regional Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party, then the biggest opposition party, was pursuing an anti-brahmin, pro-bahujan samaj position. But Parrikar, who hails from the well-networked and influential Gaud Saraswat Brahmin caste, quickly overshadowed the MGP in the opposition benches. After the next election in 1999, he became the leader of the opposition in the Goa Assembly.

"He is hardworking, sincere, a workaholic. As opposition leader he was so sharp, agile and incisive in his arguments. He made a mark for meticulously looking at the numbers, detailing corrupt deals of the then government," said BJP state general secretary Sadanand Shet Tanavade.

The image of an anti-corruption crusader was further established when, in a career-defining move as Goa's first BJP chief minister in 2000, Parrikar had three former Congress ministers arrested for "scams".

"He came as a breath of fresh air. People were fed up of the Congress and he got good coverage in the press. Unfortunately, he soon surrounded himself with hangers-on in the media. But he made his name as an anti-corruption crusader in his first term and that image served him for a long time," said Raju Nayak, editor of Marathi daily Lokmat.

He came as a breath of fresh air. People were fed up of the Congress and he got good coverage in the press

Each of Parrikar's terms at the helm—2000-2002, 2002-2005, 2012-2014 and 2017—was marked by police action, arrests and investigations against a slew of Congress leaders. In later years, this took the form of a ruthless witch-hunt that kept the opposition fearful and enfeebled, the threat of police investigations rendering the critical institution of the opposition ineffective in a parliamentary democracy.

"Cases have been kept hanging over politicians for years. But why take people into custody for matters that can be decided by documents? Politics shouldn't be run through revenge and vindictiveness," said political analyst and lawyer Cleofato Almeida Coutinho.

It's ironic, therefore, that as Parrikar is being treated at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences, he may be added as a party to a Goa Lokayukta case on a Rs 1.44 lakh crore mining lease renewal investigation that involves a 2014 decision taken by his cabinet.

In Goa's capricious political scene, Parrikar bested the Congress—whose leadership glut made it prone to mindless toppling games—more than once

Power brings its own compromises, and Parrikar's uber-effectiveness when in the opposition put him in a spot when the BJP came to power in 2012 with a majority. The party's inability to deliver on its promises to evict casinos and recover illegal mining money—despite skewering the Congress on these issues while in opposition—got him dubbed as a "U-turn CM". When Parrikar welcomed to his party Mauvin Godinho, whom he had acted against in 2001 for corruption while the latter was in the Congress, he described his own earlier charges as "not a scam, but an attempt to scam".

In Goa's capricious political scene, he bested the Congress—whose leadership glut made it prone to mindless toppling games—more than once.

"He's proved to be an ace strategist, not averse to dissolving the house without cabinet approval as he did in 2002. One day the law could be set on opponents, the next day a compromise could be worked out if it suited him. Small parties that could eat into the Congress vote base were adroitly positioned in past elections," said Coutinho. Such was Parrikar's relationship with politicians such as Churchill Alemao, Atanasio Monserrate and Francisco Pacheco.

'Transforming' Goa

Parrikar's decisive approach to time-bound project management catapulted him to national attention soon after he became chief minister for the first time.

"Parrikar has a vision for a new Goa, takes bold decisions, undertaking massive infrastructure projects that have transformed Goa and strengthened connectivity with dozens of bridges. The development of Goa that started under Congress's Pratapsingh Rane was taken a step ahead under Parrikar and later Digambar Kamat," said Nitin Kunkolienkar, former president of the Goa Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

From 2012, Parrikar foregrounded the controversial Mopa greenfield airport, four-laning of district roads and widening of village roads, easing the way for industry and real estate development in Goa to take off. Since 2015, he enthusiastically supported the centre's Sagarmala and Bharatmala projects—eight-laning of the North-South and East-West highways for container cargo traffic, a coal corridor and nationalisation of Goa's rivers. Citizens and NGOs protesting environmental degradation, deforestation and displacement found themselves brushed off when the BJP was in power and encouraged when the Congress was in office.

Political observers say that while Parrikar undoubtedly has charisma, his immense self-belief can often blind him to other opinions and possibilities.

He steamrolled domestic opposition to tear down government buildings, including health facilities and a football stadium, and pumped in Rs 100 crore to deliver Goa as the permanent location of the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) in 2004. Goa's IFFI never came anywhere close to the Cannes gala it sought to clone—the Comptroller and Auditor General of India found "financial irregularities" and "flawed tenders" in the 2004 festival—but its aura positioned the state as India's riviera playground and Parrikar as the lauded architect. National and international realtors swooped on Goa, altering the political and cultural landscape of the state.

AFP/Getty Images
Parrikar (right), actor Aamir Khan and others at the inaugural ceremony of the IFFI in 2004.

"Although he is projected as a development man, I would call it corruption-friendly development, undertaken even where not required and through an unaccountable body bypassing the Public Works Department. Smart city funds are being wasted in Panjim city on sculptures and beautification, when in some areas, people do not have two hours of potable water and proper sanitation" says Goa Congress president Girish Chodankar, who lost to Parrikar in the 2017 Panjim byelection.

Image Matters

"As a problem solver, negotiator and administrator, he can unknot vexed issues. I've seen him wade into crowds with his trademark casual unpressed bush shirt-trouser-floaters ensemble—that was part of his image from MLA to leader of opposition, to chief minister to defence minister—and talk straight to the common man on the street, rather than take his views from bureaucrats," said BJP South Goa MP Narendra Sawaikar.

Parrikar's modest upbringing and Goa's comparatively less-hierarchical society have served him well in his interactions with Goans. He handpicked the most efficient bureaucrats for his core team, worked out complex financial relief packages when mining stopped, crafted cyber-age computer schemes for teens and doles for housewives and senior citizens—all of these brought electoral dividends for the BJP, though more recently, the schemes' mishandling has come under criticism from the Comptroller and Auditor General's office.

Once in a while, Parrikar's suave, polished mask would slip and national attention would be drawn to the "brashness" most Goans were already familiar with.

"Image matters a great deal to him. He has often phoned me or some critic up to fire us for a press article," said Lokmat's Nayak.

Still, Parrikar has had it easier than most politicians with a local media that's increasingly pro-saffron. Critics also point to the easing out of inconvenient editors and journalists for more pliable ones.

Once in a while, Parrikar's suave, polished mask would slip and national attention would be drawn to the "brashness" most Goans were already familiar with.

In the power struggle within the BJP ahead of the 2014 polls, Parrikar threw in his lot with Narendra Modi and Amit Shah—his indecorous "rancid pickle" comment on senior leader LK Advani in 2009 was a precursor of the rift that was to come. In 2016, while Parrikar was defence minister, his churlish "has to be taught a lesson of his life" reference to Aamir Khan's comments on intolerance also received flak.

Parrikar's Legacy

"Parrikar's and the BJP's reign in Goa allowed the RSS to increase its footprint of schools and institutions in Goa," said educationist Prabhakar Timble. Vidhya Bharati schools, affiliated with the RSS, have been increasing in Goa.

The issue of control of schools has been lurking beneath the surface in Goa, with the RSS pitted against the Roman Catholic Church.

Government grants to 130 Archdiocese-run schools had blown up into a major conflict between Parrikar and his RSS mentor, the dismissed Goa Vibhag Sangh Chalak Subhash Velingkar, in 2016. Parrikar was defence minister at the time, but visited the state almost every weekend, and was still considered to hold the reins.

In 2001, he had had to backtrack on his attempt to hand over non-functional government primary school premises to saffron trusts when liberals across communities opposed the move. Other moves to heighten the divisive pitch and polarise politics in Goa—distribution of videographed anti-Christian history to schools, attempts to cancel Christian and Muslim holidays including Gandhi Jayanti—all effected under Parrikar, got a pushback from citizens.

Despite moves to polarise society, Goa's composition—Christians comprising 25% and Muslims 8%— meant the BJP repeatedly failed to gain a majority on its own, until the party and Parrikar effected an image makeover designed exclusively for Goa.

This meant downplaying the national BJP's anti-minority hawkishness, sheathing its Hindutva image and later, pointedly keeping Ram Sene chief Pramod Muthalik out of Goa. Parrikar also cultivated a section of Christian upper-caste business and professional elites, did photo-ops with the Archbishop, and offered a chunk of seats to lightweight, amateur Christian politicians whose business interests needed a political crutch. The strategy worked—BJP got 21 out of 40 seats in 2012, and eight of its MLAs were Christians. Even in 2017, though the BJP's count plummeted to 13 seats, Christian legislators formed more than half its tally. With some nimble alliance-building, backed by a BJP government at the centre, Parrikar kept the Congress out of power though it was the single largest party.

"He may be a hero to some, but he has destroyed democracy in Goa. Even in co-operative and local body elections, the attitude is that either my nominee wins or the institution suffers. Police and government machinery will be used to crush all opponents, by foul, illegal and immoral means. Democratic norms have been thrown to the wind so many times in assembly to see that power does not go to someone else. All competition is destroyed and this is more prevalent in his own party, where anyone who raises questions either did not survive or did not grow." says Chodankar.

While Parrikar has built up and dominated the BJP in Goa, there is growing pressure from bahujan samaj groups and its party cadre for greater roles for leaders such as Naik. Right now, as Goa waits to see what will happen, there are only murmurs within the party. But bahujan samaj leaders are coalescing across party lines to demand greater access to the top job.