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Caste politics in Goa was always subtle. That’s until AAP played the ‘Bhandari’ card

Mumbai: As Amit Palekar, the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) chief ministerial candidate for Goa, campaigns door-to-door across Santa Cruz in his quintessential half-sleeved shirt and jeans or casual trousers, he asks for a chance.

A debutant politician, he vows to give all his time to the voters. He also tells them about the various schemes that the Arvind Kejriwal-led AAP plans to launch if elected to power. 

But the one thing that Palekar, an advocate, does not tout, is his ‘Bhandari’ credentials. Caste politics in Goa has always been subtle, and Palekar, a native, is perhaps aware of this.

This state election, the AAP has brought Goa’s caste equations in politics firmly under focus by first promising to appoint a CM from the coastal state’s dominant Bhandari caste, and then going ahead and announcing Palekar, a Bhandari, as its CM nominee.

According to Kishor Naik Gaonkar, a Goa-based senior journalist and political commentator, caste politics has always been there in Goa, but always as an “undercurrent”. 

“There has never been open caste politics until now, and people think this is appropriate. Goa is a secular place where everyone lives in harmony. People don’t want to pick fights, but at the same time everyone wants their caste to be represented in the political arena,” he tells ThePrint.

“The AAP has given caste politics in Goa an obvious, open form for the first time. This will be a new experiment here, and only the poll results can tell us if it will be successful,” he adds.

Also Read: In Goa politics, personalities matter more than party. These polls are more proof

Goa’s caste cauldron

The Bhandari community is the largest among Goa’s Other Backward Classes (OBC) constituents, making up about 60 per cent of the state’s OBC population. Hindus form about 65 per cent of the state’s population, and among them, half are OBCs. This makes the Bhandaris a strong group in terms of numbers. 

However, in 60 years of Goa’s liberation from Portuguese rule a period that has seen 13 people become chief ministers with some serving multiple terms there has been only one CM from the Bhandari community, and that is Ravi Naik.

Naik was Goa’s CM between January 1991 and May 1993, but his chief ministership was more a result of political machinations than having to do with his Bhandari identity. The Congress had, with Naik’s help, toppled a coalition government of the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) and formed its own government, rewarding Naik, who was until then with the MGP, with the top post.

Eventually, Naik became the first CM to be disqualified under the Anti-Defection Act.

After a dynamic political career starting out with the MGP, shifting to the Congress, helping the BJP topple a Congress government, and later returning to the Congress Ravi Naik has now rejoined the BJP ahead of the 14 February state assembly polls.

After the Bhandaris, the largest voter group among Hindus is the Marathas and the Scheduled Castes. Incumbent Goa CM Pramod Sawant is from the Maratha community. 

The Saraswat Brahmins are not a big percentage of Goa’s population, but they are said to hold the reins of the state’s economy and are thus seen as opinion-makers, according to analysts. Goa has had quite a few chief ministers from the Saraswat Brahmin community, such as BJP’s late Manohar Parrikar, and Congress’ Pratapsingh Rane and Digambar Kamat.

“Every party has silently pandered to the Saraswat Brahmins, and they have been major opinion-makers in Goa. There are also certain candidates who end up being clear winners due to the Saraswat factor, such as Digambar Kamat (Congress), Rohan Khaunte (BJP) and Vijai Sardesai (Goa Forward Party). If Utpal Parrikar (Independent) wins, that will also be because of the Saraswat factor,” political analyst and advocate Cleofato Coutinho tells ThePrint.

Besides, the Catholics comprise about 23 per cent of Goa’s population and all parties factor this in by ensuring that a sizeable number of tickets go to Catholic candidates, analysts say.

The undercurrent of caste politics

According to Gaonkar, the subtlety of Goa’s caste politics can be seen through how the MGP first came to power on the back of being a “Bahujan” party.

“In Goa’s first election in 1963, there was Congress rule everywhere in the country except Kerala. The Congress was confident of getting elected in Goa too, but the MGP almost had a walkover,” says Gaonkar.

MGP leader Dayanand Bandodkar, who became the first CM of Goa, nominated commoners, farmers and small shopkeepers, while the Congress’ candidate list comprised industrialists, landlords and businessmen, he adds. 

“When the poll results came, a farmer defeating a zamindar, a common shopkeeper winning over an industrialist created a major sensation. There was also a fair bit of colonial hangover with the Portuguese having just left Goa. The election was not fought on caste, but indirectly, this was caste politics as an undercurrent,” says Gaonkar.

Today, the MGP has been reduced to a fringe player in Goa’s politics and its identity as a ‘Bahujan’ party has also been diluted with two Brahmins, the Dhavalikar brothers, leading it.

The undercurrent of Goa’s caste politics was also felt strongly as BJP’s Manohar Parrikar grew as a tall leader in the state following the turn of the century. 

Ahead of the 2012 Goa assembly elections, there was an apparent caste-based rift in the BJP with Parrikar, a Gaud Saraswat Brahmin, and Shripad Naik, a Bhandari, having emerged as two ambitious power centres. For a while, Naik declined to campaign for the BJP after he was denied a ticket to contest the election. The Congress used the opportunity to taunt the BJP about how elites in that party, which has traditionally been known as a “Brahmin, Baniya party”, are looking to thwart the other classes, the Bahujan Samaj, within its cadre in Goa.

Between the Parrikar and Naik rift, upper caste hegemony prevailed. The BJP placated Naik with an almost standing nomination as a Lok Sabha candidate from North Goa and a Union cabinet berth, party sources said. 

“In the last decade, Parrikar’s image was carefully cultivated as a ‘Bahujan’ leader who has a pan-Goa appeal across communities. There is a feeling that the BJP has let the Bhandari community down,” Coutinho tells ThePrint, adding that Ravi Naik’s recent induction may have been the BJP’s way of repairing this perception.

“This sentiment is being exploited by the AAP. But whether AAP can harvest it remains to be seen,” he adds.

‘AAP’s promise is not caste politics’

According to BJP’s Goa president Sadanand Shet Tanavade, caste politics has never worked in Goa, either overtly or covertly, and it never will in the future. 

“Goa is Goa. There is no caste politics here. Everyone wants their community to be represented, but they do it through social work, not open politics,” he tells ThePrint.

“Old political parties in Goa know all of this, so no party that has been in Goa will indulge in caste politics. Congress also doesn’t dabble in caste politics here. Who does it? People who don’t understand Goa,” he adds.

Meanwhile, Palekar, taking an afternoon break from campaigning, tells ThePrint that he looks at the whole issue conversely.

“For me, if a community that comprises a significant number of Goa’s population isn’t given a chance to lead in mainstream politics, that is caste politics. When we campaign, my Bhandari identity is not spoken about by any of us. It is my responsibility as someone who can be the CM of Goa to take every community with me,” he says.

“It is not caste politics if injustice is being done away with by giving a competent person from a community that has never been adequately represented, an opportunity to lead,” he adds.

(Edited by Nida Fatima Siddiqui)

Also Read: ‘Will always be Congress worker’: Ex-CM Rane pulls out of Goa polls amid feud with son

Source: The Print

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