24 September 2018 02:56 PM

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PAMELA D’MELLO | 10 SEPTEMBER, 2018

Goa CM Parrikar’s Ill Health Contentious Issue for BJP

Several Goa ministers ill as well


GOA: Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar rushed back from a US hospital on September 6, after challenges to his leadership reportedly surfaced from within his party.

The CM has had frequent and long spells in hospitals in Goa, Mumbai and the USA, since he first took ill in February. From March to June this year, he underwent treatment at a specialised New York medical centre, to which he has twice returned for follow up tests and treatment.

Far more damaging than the opposition's complaints of a "headless" government are digs from ruling alliance alliance members on the slow pace of administrative work. Statements from cabinet colleagues indicate a growing restlessness as manifested in the political moves that unfolded during the CM's last US visit.

On Friday the Congress party met Governor Mridula Sinha to seek her intervention in what it called administrative and governmental collapse by an unfit government.

Plainly the BJP has a problem on its hands in Goa. Two other ministers are seriously unwell and away from office. Law minister Francis D'Souza is away for treatment in the USA, reportedly at the same New York hospital. Power minister Pandurang Madkaikar continues to be hospitalised in Mumbai after suffering a brain stroke in June. Mounting hospital bills are the subject of a right to information query, but no answers have been forthcoming from any source.

The secrecy maintained over the CM's health has helped the BJP buy time, but there are signs that the main challenge to Parrikar comes from within the ruling combine.

Cabinet colleagues are displaying increasing signs of being fretful at the CM's repeated absences without having nominated a deputy. Rumours that a section of ruling combine members were attempting to poach key leaders from the opposition, to shore up its own leadership vacuum, prompted the Congress to hold a retaliatory press conference to counter allege that BJP members had been in touch asking to cross over.

The swirling political headwinds saw the CM rush back to the state two days ahead of schedule. It is not the first time since his ill-health that talks of replacement have drawn him hurriedly back from medical care. Overtly, the BJP has been unable to find an acceptable deputy to head the divergent three-party alliance it cobbled together. It is believed this is because none of the alliance partners can agree on any other leader, besides Parrikar.

A severely restricted talent pool has left the BJP hard pressed to find anyone within its current ranks to match Parrikar’s calibre and political acumen. This aura has so far suited the chief minister's office, permitting the CMO and an inner circle to retain control and remain the decision-making hub in his absence, running the state through long periods of his indisposition, reportedly even ferrying files to the US.

The two regional parties, the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and the Goa Forward Party (GFP), have not been keen to merge their parties with the BJP, though this was mooted as an alternative that would cancel out rival parties wooing the same voter base and inject political leadership into the government.

Three names were thrown up as stand-ins for the CM, and all have been shot down by one or other partners in the alliance. Seven of the BJP's legislators are Christians and three others are Congress imports, narrowing its options for a trusted cadre-based leader. Speaker Pramod Sawant has repeatedly stood in for the CM at official functions, drawing protest from the opposition. As a result, despite the murmurings and covert moves gathering pace in his absence Parrikar continues to helm the fractious coalition.

The CM's supporters were reassured in July-August, with his spirited defence of the government on the floor of Assembly, but further medical issues and spells in hospitals abroad have once more created disquiet here.

Predictably, the CM's frequent absences have had an impact on the state. Ruling coalition members are not putting on a responsible enough front themselves to reassure citizens. Indeed the past six months have seen leaders of the alliance jostle to package themselves as capable potential replacements, while trying to trip up rivals. The artless derision of ailing colleagues by ruling legislators, waiting in the wings to snap up ministerial berths themselves, hasn't exactly brightened the coalition's image in citizens' eyes.

Sniping and bickering could be dismissed as par for the political course, but it is less tolerable when accompanied by a perceptible administrative void on the ground and rising public vexation with the government's poor delivery of services. Daily summer power cuts, flooded and potholed roads, and traffic gridlocks on arterial highways undergoing major construction in the monsoon have stretched public patience.

Parrikar and his ailing colleagues' retention of 28 portfolios while away from the state, including key ones like home, finance, and administration, have provided grist to government critics' mill. Although the BJP has dismissed concerns that the frequent remote-run arrangements were untenable, it is finding it less easy to gloss over the governance crisis due to the myriad major and minor matters kept on hold, especially when ministers themselves are pointing this out to the press.

A key issue hanging fire is the state's plea to the centre to promulgate a legislative amendment to restart mining, which remains unresolved even as out-of-work dependents become increasingly restless and mining companies lay off workers.

The opposition Congress, restructured and more animated under the young Girish Chodankar, reputed not to be corrupt, has calibrated its responses to the political situation. It has restricted criticism to sharp press conferences and eschewed an aggressive stand towards the government leadership, which would be seen as graceless when men are ailing.

The Congress stance is that it will make no move to dislodge the government, but watch it fall on its own weight. The fact is, the opposition clearly does not fancy its chances of running a government, with a potentially hostile centre, while saddled with the state's huge debt, with a dozen big infrastructure projects half complete and the state's fiscal independence weakened. More aggressive than under previous leaderships, the opposition Congress has nonetheless managed to shine a constant spotlight on governance lapses in the past six months.

Although the government is crippled with a lengthening sick list, the opposition still poses less of a challenge to it than its own allies. The Congress has avoided going in for the kill and bringing down the government. Cross-affiliations between the ruling GFP and sections of the Congress saw the government sail through effortlessly in the budget and monsoon sessions, despite its depleted numbers in the treasury benches.

However, the BJP can take little consolation from this for it appears to be saddled with deeper concerns. As the administration operates in fits and starts and civic amenities go south, its bigger worry is that its own support base is getting increasingly testy: hardly good signs ahead of the upcoming 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

But in all this, for citizens, the constitutive structural changes that are unfolding, have graver long term implications, on the role of legislative assemblies in the democratic functioning of government. Health considerations took precedence and stymied a budget presentation exercise in February, which was snipped short. Furthermore, observers could see that debates in the usually robust monsoon assembly session were drastically cut. Citizen groups alleged that discussions were speeded through on contentious matters with far-reaching consequences for citizens.

Thus, while matters facilitating business and easing mining, real estate and industry were foregrounded, education loans have been axed, while legislators closed ranks to give themselves a pay hike.

Far too large a proportion of Goa's political class, ruling and opposition, are embedded in the trading and brokering of land; this puts them on the same page when it comes to legislation. The opposition put up only brief token resistance to legislative measures which were promptly rejected in village gram sabhas soon after the session.

The opposition's lacklustre performance is being attributed to the several cases filed since 2012 by the government against opposition members. Five senior Congressmen were under investigation in several different cases. "In such a situation, citizens feel orphaned. We are seeing the hollowing out of the institution from within," said one political analyst.
 

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