With the final line up for the March 3 Assembly polls to the 40-member Assembly in Goa having crystallized, it is clear that the ruling Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) combine will have to slug it out with the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-Maharashtra Gomantak Party (MGP) alliance in this coastal State.

Seventeen political parties, big and small, have put up candidates in the election; but the main fight is between the Congress-NCP alliance, which is contesting all 40 seats (33 and 7, respectively) and the BJP-MGP alliance which is contesting 35 (28 and 7, respectively, with support for an Independent woman candidate in north Goa). In four constituencies of South Goa's Salcete taluk, a traditional Congress bastion where these parties do not have a significant presence, they are backing anti-Congress candidates of regional parties or Independents, with an eye on the post-electoral scenario.

The plethora of regional parties and the large number of Independents, mostly rebels from both sides, have the potential to create major upsets which can lead to yet another split verdict: 74 Independents are among the 215 candidates contesting the election. Independents, small regional outfits and other national level parties which have mushroomed ahead of elections like Trinamool Congress could play “spoilsport” in many of the constituencies owing to multi-cornered contests and the small victory margins inevitable in tiny constituencies with a voter population of around 25,000.

For last two consecutive Assembly elections, Goan voters have failed to give a decisive verdict leading to blatant opportunistic post poll cobbling of coalitions, comprising disparate political elements, united only in their desire for a share in power. Meanwhile, the State continues to suffer from lawlessness, poor governance and monumental illegalities, corruption and allegations of bribes against Ministers being very common. Lasting out a full term is seen as the only achievement of incumbent Chief Minister Digambar Kamat known for his "politics of compromises." His Congress-led coalition has faced repeated political coups and has been perennially under threat from power-brokers and lobbies.

As always, candidate selection was the Congress' biggest nightmare. Several constituencies will see multi-corner contests. Powerful rebels could be its undoing. While the ruling Congress faces a major threat from rebels and factional warfare, the BJP this time is not far behind considering the party entered into a last minute alliance with regional MGP to make a serious bid for power.

With the BJP finally succeeding in weaning away from the Congress the Hindu mass-based MGP ahead of polls, after 14 years, the Congress has been shaken. Considering the overlapping of the vote-bank between BJP and MGP, the Congress banked on this regional ally to split the anti-Congress votes, even though the regional outfit is a far cry today from its glorious past when it ruled for 16 years without break post liberation. Today, it is a pocket borough of the ambitious Dhavlikar brothers.

Saddled as they were with disqualification petitions lying with the Speaker, a Congressman, the Chief Minister underestimated the resolve of the Dhavlikar brothers to join hands with BJP. The BJP-MGP combine is banking on the polarization of the Hindu vote, which accounts for about 65 per cent of the population.

The chances of this happening are higher because of the open electoral backing for the alliance from the Bharatiya Bhasha Suraksha Manch, a group of language chauvinists who are opposed to the Congress government's change in policy on medium of instruction at primary level. Under pressure from parents, the Congress changed its policy at primary school level to also provide grants to English medium schools.

Much to the BJP's chagrin, it has not been able to exploit this issue to the hilt as it has been making a concerted bid to woo the Catholic voters with nearly seven Catholic candidates being nominated by the party from the community, which is about 27 per cent of the population. Diocesan schools have been the biggest beneficiaries of the government's changed decision on the medium of instruction.

The Congress is facing an anti-incumbency factor owing to poor governance, allegations of corruption and issues such as the government's inability to tackle illegal mining, land grabbing and lawlessness. What has added to its woes is its meek surrender to the dictates of ‘the five families' in the name of electoral politics.

Public resentment is palpable over the Congress party's handing out 12 tickets to the handful of families already enjoying positions of power. The Opposition has gone to town with the charge that the 40 member Assembly would witness a dangerous concentration of power and be controlled by a handful of families: four Alemaos, two Ranes, two Monserrates, two Naiks and two Madkaikars. Unable to defend themselves, Congress leaders led by working president Francisco Sardinha are pointing the finger at the high command.

Goa's personality-and-family-based politics has come to haunt the Congress in a big way. Partymen unconvincingly justify the decision, which is derisively described as “Congress family raj” as a well-thought out decision based on “winnability.”

It is, however, no more a secret that the Congress is increasingly coming across as helpless in front of the power of these families. The party, nevertheless, hopes to benefit from the insecurities of minorities about the BJP's Hindutva as the electoral battle hots up. But it may get a shock this time around as the BJP has been steadfastly wooing the minorities.

With quite a few prominent Catholic leaders led by the fishermen's leader Matanhy Saldanha having joined the saffron party "seeking a change" ahead of the election, the BJP is grappling to overcome the phobia and suspicion it has attracted from minorities.