Amit Shah, Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, P Chidambaram, Mahua Moitra, Prashant Kishor, G Kishan Reddy, and Devendra Fadnavis – the who's who of Indian politics are frequenting Goa. And no, before you speculate, no one's on a vacation.
The smallest Indian state with an area of just 3,702 square kilometre will see an election battle in 2022 with at least eight national and regional parties in the fray.
What explains this sudden curiosity of national and non-Goan parties in a state which boasts of a history mired in horse-trading and president's rule, and has just 40 Assembly seats? And will their entries upset the election arithmetic in Goa?
Importance of Goa in National Politics
First things first, Goa's location, industries, and population make it a much sought-after catch for all political parties across the board.
The state shares its geographical boundaries with Maharashtra on the north and Karnataka to the east; and both of these neighbouring states are politically significant and exert great influence on the Goan culture. Further, industries like tourism and mining make it the crown jewel that no party wants to let go of.
Unlike several other states, Goa's first chief minister belonged to a regional force – the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and the national players took much longer to establish their electoral presence.
Each Assembly in Goa has somewhere close to 30,000 voters. To win a two-way contest, a candidate has to secure a little over 15,000 votes and if there are more people in the fray, just around 3,000-5,000 votes can guarantee a victory. You don't necessarily have to rely on a party or an ideology to secure a victory in such close contests.
For example, in 2017, 25 percent of the seats were won by local parties and independent candidates.
This makes Goan politics – unlike politics elsewhere in India – individual-centric and not party-centric.
What's at Stake for the Old Horses?
Senior Journalist Ajay Thakur points out that the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Goa rose on the ashes of regional players like the United Goans Party (UGP) and the MGP.
"We need to understand how Goan politics has evolved over time. After liberation in 1961, the state had two parties of its own – the UGP and the MGP. National players like the BJP and Congress rose on the ashes of these parties."Ajay Thakur, Senior Journalist
For the incumbent BJP, this will be the first election after the death of Manohar Parrikar, the four-time chief minister of the state, and also the man largely credited for expanding the BJP's footprint in Goa.
"The BJP was not able to cut much of an ice in Goa until 1999, when Parrikar engineered the 'modern era of defection'. Even after that, because of individual-centric politics, the Congress still managed to sail through. It was then that the BJP started poaching Congress leaders and the horse-trading became commonplace," Thakur says.
In the Lok Sabha elections after Parrikar's death in 2019, the BJP lost the south Goa seat to the Congress while retaining north Goa under the leadership of Shripad Naik.
In no mood to let their guard down, the BJP's top leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, former Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, and party chief JP Nadda, have been making frequent visits to the state to charge the party cadre ahead of the big fight. During his visit, Shah even claimed that the BJP will form a government in Goa with full majority in 2022.
The stakes are high, even for the Congress. In 2017, despite emerging as the single largest party winning 17 out of 40 seats, the Congress could not form the government as the BJP stitched an alliance with the regional parties to stake claim.
And even as party leader Rahul Gandhi officially kick-started the poll campaign on 30 October, senior leader P Chidamabaram has been frequenting the state for a while now, attempting an overhaul of the cadre and assessing the party's chances in the upcoming polls.
Ajay Thakur points out that while there is a huge anti-incumbency in Goa, there is also a mistrust in the Congress because of their failure to form the government after the last election.
"People want the BJP out, but are reluctant about the Congress. However, the Congress party is doing a lot of work on ground. They are conducting membership drives and their experienced leaders flock to other parties, there is a whole lot of young politicians who will be contesting the elections this time around," he says.
Further, while the BJP has shown interest in aligning with regional parties like the MGP, the Congress has made no such advances yet.
Previously in 2017, Vijay Sardesai's Goa Forward Party (GFP) ditched the Congress and played an instrumental role in forming the BJP government. This time around, however, Sardesai has claimed that he is open to alliance with all "like-minded" parties looking to defeat the BJP in Goa.
But We Also Have Some Surprise Last-Minute Entries
The last-minute and rather surprising entry in Goa has been that of Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress (TMC). Experts in the state seem to be divided over the role of TMC in this election. While some say that it has no real presence on ground, others feel that if the TMC is able to make inroads in the state, it will establish its credentials as a national-level alternative to the BJP.
"Currently on a spree of celebrity recruitment, the TMC in Goa has no real chance despite poaching leaders from other parties (ref: Congress' Luizinho Faleiro)," a senior political analyst from the state told The Quint on the condition of anonymity.
Banking on the reputation of political strategist Prashant Kishor and riding on the massive victory in West Bengal, the TMC has made a splashy entry in Goa.
But apart from the TMC, Arvind Kejriwal's Aam Aadmi Party is also a serious contender this time. In 2017, though the party failed to open its account, it emerged as the fourth player in the state behind the Congress, the BJP and the MGP with a vote share of 6.3 percent.
However, since then, the party has made significant inroads in the state with some successful recruitments like Dayanand Narvekar from the MGP.
In addition to the TMC and AAP, the Shiv Sena and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) will contest in the upcoming polls. The Shiv Sena has declared that it will fight the election on 22 seats in the state and will mostly bank on cultural and geographical proximity between Goa and Maharashtra.
At this point, Thakur states that Goans are not some "starry-eyed" kids who will be fascinated with leaders like Kejriwal and Banerjee who enjoy unmatched popularity in their home states.
"The problem with the TMC now and the AAP for close to seven years has been that they have failed to provide strong regional leaders who can be the face of their parties in Goa. Goans are smart people who have a deep-rooted sense of democracy. They know that an Arvind Kejriwal or a Mamata Banerjee will not leave Delhi and West Bengal and move to Goa if voted to power."Ajay Thakur, Senior Journalist
"From what the situation looks like right now, it is too early to predict if and who will spoil the broth in Goa. Whatever khela is to happen, will happen close to the elections," he added.