(This story was first published on 9 January 2022. It has been reposted from The Quint's archives in light of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) declaring Amit Palekar as its chief ministerial candidate for Goa assembly elections. Palekar, an advocate by profession comes from the Bhandari community.)
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in a press conference a few months ago announced that their cabinet would be led by a Bhandari chief minister and a Catholic deputy chief minister. The Bhandari Samaj constitutes the largest demographic group in Goa, and is classified under the OBC category.
The last time a Bhandari legislator became the Chief Minister of Goa was in the early 1990s. Since then, the community has had numerous legislators but none managed to ascend to the chief ministerial berth. AAP’s calculated polemic has stirred debates around the lack of representations of the Bahujan Samaj, and Bhandaris in particular, in the seats of power.
The newly arrived Trinamool Congress (TMC) intensified its statewide campaign with Abhishek Banerjee making an offering at the Rudreshwar temple, the patron deity of the Bhandari community.
Surviving amidst a deserting ship owing to successive resignations of its legislators, Congress’ Goa head and Bhandari face Girish Chodankar has found himself in the eye of a hurricane.
The BJP has several Bhandari faces in their stable, some of them imported recently from other parties. Despite the BJP’s claims to represent the Bahujan interests in Goa, none of their Bhandari faces is being projected as their chief ministerial candidate.
Given the political rhetoric adopted by all the aforementioned parties, it is safe to say that the ‘Bhandari factor’ will be one of the decisive planks in the upcoming state elections.
Looking Back: The Bandodkar Legacy
The demand for a Bahujan/Bhandari CM for Goa is not a new one. Goa was the first state in India which elected a pro-Bahujan government in its inaugural state assembly elections in 1963. Dayanand Bandodkar, with his Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP), transformed the fate of hitherto oppressed caste communities of Goa. Within one month of taking charge of the government, Bandodkar announced the setting up of 200 primary schools for the academic year 1964-65.
The major thrust of his educational policy was to eradicate inequality by universalising primary education. Under Bandodkar’s tenure, the number of primary schools increased from 274 to 492 in 1964-65 and further increased to 900 in 1967. Bandodkar also brought in land reforms under the revolutionary Tenancy Act 1964 which promised land to the tiller. Goa-based historian Parag Parobo has called Bandodkar’s regime India’s first democratic revolution.
Since then, Goan politics has undergone several transitions. The 1980s saw the irrelevance of once-dominant regional parties such as the MGP and the United Goans Democratic Party (UGDP). This decade also marks the implementation of the tourism policy, enacting the official language act (which established Konkani as Goa’s official language), and the granting of statehood to Goa.
These events created newer capitalists and political patrons in Goa, who took refuge in Congress while the Bahujan voter base that MGP had consolidated gradually shifted towards the BJP in the 1990s.
In the first decade of the 2000s, Goa saw two Saraswat chief ministers, Manohar Parrikar and Digambar Kamat. Pratapsingh Rane, belonging to an old feudal elite, was also the CM for a brief period. Parrikar’s ascendancy in the Goan political landscape in the late 1990s and his brazen suppression of any emergent Bahujan leadership (even within his own party) strengthened the community’s desire to reinstate itself into the state power.
AAP’s promise of a Bhandari Chief Minister has merely scratched the surface of a very old wound the Goan Bahujans have been carrying for several decades now.
The Parrikar Era
The paucity of Bahujan leadership in the last two decades has been so pronounced that Parrikar’s spin doctors have often tried to reinvent him as the Bahujan leader. The prominent media houses in Goa, owned and/or operated by Saraswats, majorly participated in propagating the myth making. The implication, rather insidious, was two-fold. One, it made Parrikar look better because he transgressed his caste, and secondly it suggested that the Bahujan community has not been able to produce a leader of its own since Bandodkar. This strategy was also geared towards cementing BJP as the de facto Bahujan party in Goa.
After his death, the BJP was hell bent on building a memorial to Parrikar beside Bandodkar’s memorial at the Miramar beach in Panjim overriding Coastal Regulation Zone rules. The BJP’s aversion to Bahujan leadership is no secret. Their long-time commander and their prominent Bhandari face, Shripad Naik has been largely kept away from the state politics despite his mass appeal as compared to Parrikar.
Naik is currently a Member of Parliament from North Goa and a minister in the Modi cabinet. In fact, it was expected that at least after Parrikar’s demise, Naik would be appointed Chief Minister, a desire that did not materialise.
Parrikar was never pro-Bahujan in his policies either. In fact, his own caste interests have often marred his policies to the detriment of the Goan Bahujans. In his first term as the Chief Minister, Parrikar had declared the 125th birth anniversary of Vaman Raghunath Varde Valaulikar (Shenoi Goembab) in 2002 as an occasion to celebrate Goa’s cultural identity.
Valaulikar was a Saraswat based in Bombay Presidency between late 19th-20th century and mobilised Saraswats towards the cause of Konkani and claiming Goa as their homeland. Valaulikar had also written in support of the existence of the Devadasi system prevalent at that time in Goa.
In his last term, Parrikar oversaw the passing of amendments to the tenancy acts in Goa in 2017 and made provisions to transfer the cases to local administration instead of the courts. There has been an active movement to oppose this move and reinstate the tenancy act of 1964 in Goa and make it favourable to tenants instead of landlords, a move that has been severely criticised by the Bahujans across Goa.
In fact, tenancy reforms were key highlights of Bandodkar’s governance. By amending those reforms, Parrikar has effectively undone Bandodkar’s legacy. These are but two instances of Parrikar’s caste bias informing his policy decisions.
BJP in Goa: Post-Parrikar
After Parrikar’s demise, the successive leadership within BJP terminated some of Parrikar’s Saraswat confidantes who were appointed in plum positions. Vijai Sardesai, the head of the Goa Forward Party, along with his two MLAs was also dropped from the alliance and stripped off their ministerial berths. Sardesai, who had fought the 2017 elections on an aggressive anti-BJP and pro-secular rhetoric, chose to eventually align with Parrikar.
In an interview to Prudent Goa last month, Sardesai said that he did not support the Congress because they did not assure Digambar Kamat the chief ministerial berth and hence sided with Parrikar. Like Parrikar and Kamat, Sardesai is a Saraswat too.
Simultaneously, Bhai Naik, a prominent Saraswat businessman, had claimed that the stripping off of ministerial berths from Sardesai and terminating services of Parrikar’s confidantes was an injustice to the Saraswat community. This implies that these appointments, if not made on the basis of community kinship, were at least perceived by the community as such.
A week ago, in a widely circulated video of a private event, Bhai Naik was heard saying that he is “dead against Congress” and would support BJP in 38 out of total 40 constituencies.
The two constituencies where he would not support BJP are Margao and Fatorda, belonging namely to Kamat and Sardesai. Bhai Naik also said that Damu Naik, the BJP candidate from Fatorda, is his good friend but he’d rather choose Sardesai over him. Unlike others in this equation, Damu Naik is a Bhandari and has lost two consecutive terms in Fatorda to Sardesai.
Election and Caste-Based Arithmetic
Beneath the veneer of ideologies and party affiliation, Goan politics rests heavily on caste-based arithmetic. Since the Bhandari community has a considerable voting share in prominent constituencies, it becomes an important target for consolidated voting. Before AAP, no one really bothered to make their dwindling representation in the cabinet a political issue.
It must also be noted, all political parties, including AAP, currently have at least one upper-caste politician in a decision-making post but the same cannot be said for the Bahujans. While it remains to be seen how much the AAP attracts the Catholic and Bhandari voter base towards them this election, their strategy has certainly got other political parties on their toes.
The Goan print and news media has consistently criticised and ridiculed the AAP for reserving the CM berth for a Bhandari. Some of the editors often grill AAP spokespersons over this issue and instead ask for a commitment to appointing a Chief Minister who is educated and can handle administration effectively.
This sounds very similar to the “merit” argument often made in admissions to higher education and one wonders if this is a sly suggestion that Bhandaris are neither educated nor capable administrators.
The latter part is true to a large extent but amid a lack of control over resources such as land, media, and capital, it is not easy to build an autonomous Bahujan movement. Their representation in the domains of knowledge production, research, and media is disproportionately abysmal.
Bandodkar was able to build such a movement largely because of his foray into mining from which he redirected considerable amount of his wealth towards Bahujan philanthropy.
This alienation of the Bahujan community in Goa is, in fact, one of the primary reasons why political outfits such as Revolutionary Goans (RG) have emerged. RG is largely a youth-based organisation attracting considerable crowds at their election rallies and social media platforms. Their political rhetoric is performing the rage of the oppressed. It is, however, being steered towards disconcerting levels of xenophobia where the working-class migrant is constructed as the target of hate. They undertook a ‘cleanup’ of voter’s list at constituency level to identify ‘doubtful and suspected’ migrants and sent a list of the same to the Election Commission.
Such politics is alarming in the wake of insidious legislations like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019. The RG do not claim to represent Bahujans in any sense although they are largely populated by young Bahujans who have not been made stakeholders in the profit-making venture that Goa has become over the years.
For the Bahujans, bid to (re)gain its due share in power in the upcoming elections seem bleak. The problem is not merely restricted to their political representation but a structural predicament that the Bahujans are trapped in. Indian democracy has always placed high demands of patience on communities it should have rushed to liberate on a priority basis. Goa is certainly not an exception.
(Kaustubh Naik is a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania researching early modern Goan history. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for his reported views.)