"I began by owning the mistakes of the Congress and sought pardon from the Goan people and promised that we will not repeat the mistakes. That has given the confidence to people to come back to the Congress. That is why I see a sympathy wave for the Congress," says John Fernandes, president of the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC).
Mr. Fernandes fancies the Congress' chances of winning both the Lok Sabha seats in Goa despite intense infighting, rebellion and lack of organisational base in many assembly segments in the State.
If the Congress in Goa - which was in a disarray since its debacle in the 2012 State Assembly elections, is showing imminent signs of regaining its traditional minority vote-base in the upcoming parliamentary election despite familiar rebellions over ticket distribution and continued dissensions - credit must go to Mr. Fernandes for trying to bring back some sort of discipline and enthusiasm among party loyalists, despite very limited time at his disposal. He was inducted in December last.
Faced with a formidable challenge from the well-organised BJP led by Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar, the Congress is solely banking on the return of its Catholic vote bank. Driven by the minority's apprehensions against BJP's Modi-centric election campaign and his perceived "divisiveness", the Goa Church issued its pre-election advisories to its followers to vote for secular parties, which has surely unsettled the BJP, more so in Catholic-dominated south Goa.
Added to this is Mr. Fernandes's apology to the people for all the "blunders" of the Congress, including corruption and hegemony of a few families during its erstwhile rule.
Mr. Fernandes calls the imminent turnaround a "sympathy wave of the people for punishing the Congress in the Assembly elections believing in Manohar Parrikar's lies," says an outspoken and untainted Mr. Fernandes who does not fear taking Mr. Parrikar head-on, unlike many Congress leaders in the State.
A two-time former Rajya Sabha MP, Mr. Fernandes is a 'Congress loyalist', who was picked out of political wilderness and thrust as the pradesh Congress president by the high command on a completely demoralised State unit, with an uphill task of putting the crumbling house in order. He stuck to his task in a no-nonsense approach.
When most of the local leaders seemed to be wary of BJP Chief Minister Parrikar or subtly aligned with him, Mr. Fernandes showed a rare spine.
"I began with messages from Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of the party, that young people will be promoted. No MP, MLA can take seats for granted. We gave a young candidate, Aleixo Reginaldo Lourenco, the south Goa ticket, disregarding rebellions and denying ticket to the three-time sitting MP. At the same time, in north Goa, we gave ticket to the old and experienced Ravi Naik," he explains.
Ahead of the election, he appointed a band of youths as party spokespersons and activated the party's frontal organisations, IT Cell of GPCC.
"People have realised after two years of Parrikar rule that the BJP has fooled them. We have exposed Parrikar's constant lies and U-turns on all promises he made on issues like illegal mining, casinos, land use plan and others, forcing people back to the Congress," he said in a scathing attack on Mr. Parrikar.
Trying to discipline a lot of "Aaya Raams' and 'Gayaa Raams" in the party, Mr. Fernandes has to fight on several fronts. He admits that the party high command did not react fast to the Assembly poll debacle with bold decisions, allowing the party to be further lowered in the eyes of the people.
Nevertheless, taking over when there was hardly any time to prepare for elections, he made the right moves to clean up the party. That has sparked the imagination of the party rank and file. He managed to outwit alliance partner NCP to get both the Goa seats for the Congress after surrendering them to the NCP for the last two consecutive terms.
Confident of retaining south Goa in Saturday's hustings, Mr. Fernandes hopes to snatch the north Goa seat from the three-time BJP MP.