With ruling party on the backfoot and polarisation of the Hindu vote, Goa looks headed for a hung Assembly

For Congress Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, whose main achievement is lasting five years while presiding over a coalition of disparate elements and power seekers, the March 3 State Assembly elections is going to be a bumpy ride.

And not just because the Opposition is capitalising on his government's poor governance or cornering him with allegations of complicity in illegal mining and corruption. Historically, the Congress during elections has more to fear and much to lose from the rebellions and skullduggery of its own disgruntled leaders once the candidate list is out rather than the Opposition. This election is no exception either.

Chief Ministerial aspirant of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Manohar Parrikar may have given a call for change through his 15-day “parivartan yatra” across the State. But affairs in his party are far from hunky dory either. Some of its MLAs have defected to the ruling Congress ahead of the election. Its number two leader and north Goa MP Sripad Naik, who hails from a dominant caste in the State's politics, is in rebellious mood as the party high command denied him permission to contest election. The BJP's best chance to come to power is through polarising the Hindu votes, and its alliance with the regional Hindu mass-based Maharashtra Gomantak Party (MGP) is meant to do just that.

Serious issues seldom dominate polls in this coastal State. It is the personalities with their caste, religious backing, money and muscle power that decide electoral fortunes. Party labels only matter during election. Governments are eventually made and unmade by Independents, and small regional groups and factions.

With only 19 seats in the 40-member house in the last election, the Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) alliance cobbled together a coalition of 25 with the help of regional outfits and Independents. Then through a series of splits and defections and by-elections spread over five years, carefully done by dodging the anti-defection law, Kamat not only survived repeated coups but raised the Congress strength to 20 in the outgoing truncated assembly of 37. The BJP sank to 12 from the 14 it won in the last election.

A marginal restructuring of some segments and carving out of a few new ones within the existing 40 in the latest delimitation may have its impact on the elections, because of the change in equations based on caste and religion.

Traditionally, Congress ruled Goa riding on the support base of the Catholics, who comprise 26 per cent of the population. Salcete taluk of south Goa with nearly 55 per cent Catholics was once its bastion. If the Congress failed to gain a majority in last couple of elections, it is due to intense factionalism and bitter rivalries within. Post-electoral alliances and unprincipled compromises with disparate groups including elected rebels to gain power have further eroded the Congress base. At any given time, the ruling Congress resembles a loose conglomeration of politicians hungry for power.

The BJP this time is putting up many Catholic candidates to woo the minority votes. The induction of Catholic leaders like Matanhy Saldanha, former Tourism Minister and a leader of the fishermen, has boosted its standing among the minorities.

The Chief Minister may be a survivor, but many issues may haunt him as election campaign hots up. Protagonists of local languages have rallied behind the BJP opposing the government's change of primary education policy to give grants to English medium schools. The simmering discontent of the Goa Church over controversial State land use plan may hurt Kamat as several village groups have joined hands to put up some Independent candidates. Tiny assembly constituencies with average voter strength of 25,000 could see upset victories by small margins of Independents, regional outfits and rebels.

The Congress's worries are accentuated by several regional outfits which invariably spring up ahead of elections. They, along with new entrants to the State like the Trinamool Congress and Ram Vilas Paswan's Lok Janshakti Party (LJP) and Janata Dal (U) can turn out to be “effective spoilers” for the Congress by embracing Congress rebels.

With no party confident of a decisive victory, the chances of another hung assembly loom large.

The Goa election machinery has been relentlessly kept on its toes by politicians via unabashed code violations. Apart from flow of money and liquor, out-of turn government jobs, misuse of government machinery and distribution of all sorts of freebies are testing the model code of conduct. Apart from money, caste and religion, the poor migrant workers, estimated at nearly 25 per cent of the voters, could also play a decisive role.