Being sidelined has brought out the street fighter in charismatic Vijai Sardesai
Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, they say, and none more uneasy today perhaps than the Congress in Goa on the eve of Assembly polls. As usual, the Congress has managed with a stunning lack of prescience to alienate several supporters. The result? It has more enemies from the home camp than from the opposition: it will be fighting rebels in 10 of the 33 constituencies it plans to contest.
Of these rebels, it's the young and charismatic Vijai Sardesai who will give it the most headaches. Considered a sure-fire Congress winner from Fatorda, the Goa Congress general secretary was sidelined in favour of M K Shaikh in order to tick the Muslim box. It's possibly why AICC president Sonia Gandhi plans to address Fatorda at her only public meeting in Goa on 25 February. Vote splitting was the main reason the Congress failed to get an outright majority in the last elections.
Sardesai has been nursing Fatorda for the last few years, besides which his 40 years would have seemed the obvious choice against the 60-plus Shaikh from a party whose general secretary campaigns strongly for youth but, as Sardesai says, “it's a mystery” why he was rejected. It might not be such a mystery if you consider just how outspoken Sardesai has been against Family Raj, or the five-family rule in Goa. This can't have gone down very well with a party that swears by the dynastic principle.
But saying it like it is seems to be very much Sardesai's signature style, an appealing example of the new age Indian politician. While not quite the Eton-accented upmarket kid, he is clearly not cast along Laloo-esque lines either. An agriculture graduate, he comes from impeccable stock — mother an Acharya Vinobha Bhave follower and uncle Ravindra Kelekar a Sahitya Academy Award winner — combining the instincts of a street fighter with sympathy for the underdog. He makes no secret of how much Leftist thought has inspired him. When I first met Sardesai at a dinner in Goa, he was still very much a Congressman, and we had an empathetic discussion about the New Left. He quotes Guevara fluently and admires Castro. He likes Obama's audacious win and has adopted V for Change as his slogan. “I share a birthday with Che Guevara,” he says, smiling, “and I don't know if that explains the revolutionary fervour I have.”
How do such ideas fit in with his membership of the Congress till very recently, I ask. “Reformism is necessary,” he says, referring to the theory that change within existing institutions can ultimately change a society. He has followed the Arab Spring avidly, change initiated by the masses. “They were faceless youth,” he says, “It is they who will have to emerge as the face of the country, of the future.”
An admirer of Sheila Dixit's ‘Bhagidari' system of involving people in governance, Sardesai's manifesto talks of establishing Sangattans, citizen-government partnerships for development work. He also has plans for a regional party, where “the future of Goa will be in the hands of Goans”.
Then there's Sardesai's reputation as king-maker and master strategist. Often called a Chanakya, he has been tactician to several politicians, winning Lok Sabha elections for at least two. Youth power can be unsettling and strong, and Sardesai is exploiting this through Facebook and You Tube. “My campaigns are more like rock shows,” he says, laughing. Looks like a tornado has been unleashed in the land of susegad.