Tuesday , 19 November 2019
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A people’s agenda

Frederick Noronha


Goa is fast sliding into election mode, and the signs are all around. In the past week itself, the AAP gambled fast and named its chief ministerial candidate, the BJP-led State government raised an investigation against the latter, and the expected schedule for deciding Congress contestants has been announced. Legislators have shown their intent by indulging in eleventh-hour floor-crossing too.

Behind such moves, one has to read between the lines, and see the patterns forming in the tea leaves. The result of many Goa elections, right from its first in 1963, has been decided before a single vote is cast. Electoral alliances and secret strategies have played as much of a role in shaping this region’s political destiny as all the votes cast in the subsequent polls.

The response to Elvis Gomes being named the AAP chief ministerial candidate was swift, especially in the social media, sometimes a barometer for people’s reactions but one which can be easily manipulated too. Here was a party, hoping to make its impact in an unlikely place like Goa, sending out a message to its potential voters. It is taking a gamble by naming a minority candidate as its chief ministerial aspirant. That too, someone from the Salcete taluka. One can’t overlook the fact that Salcete was where the BJP played a smart game in 2012 to enable it to get those few extra critical votes needed so badly to come to power with what latter seemed to be an impressive win.

Most unfortunately, Goa’s elections continue to be polarised on religion (or caste) lines. As a friend, John Simoes, once joked, elsewhere people cast their votes; we often vote our caste. (Or, more often, our religion)

This creates an artificial sense of empowerment. We get the feeling that ‘our’ man (it seldom is ‘our’ woman) is in power. But in reality, it means little.

At one academic conference in Goa, held quite some years ago when academic conferences were more frequent, participants were lamenting how our region continues to be polarised along Two Goas lines. Basically, we are divided along the accidents of colonial history, which region got conquered when, and the consequent influences this had on us.

At one level, the divide seems to be primarily religious. But scratch a little deeper, and you’ll find other divides of gender, geography, language and culture. Someone once suggested that there are still at least eight different Goas, not just two! We are yet to negotiate a composite identity that takes our diversity into account.

So, in such a situation, are we then just ill-fated to keep getting divided. To have our primordial loyalties played upon. To keep getting promised things on the basis of our group identities but mostly short-changed along the way?

Fact is that such promises seldom work out. Unfortunately, we don’t have any effective think-tanks to even analyse political promises made during the years, or the effective implementation of the same. Unlike in the past, when individuals like the late Matanhy Saldanha, who with support from Reggie Gomes and others, ran documentation centres like the GRID (Goa Research Institute for Development) which was once active in Sant Inez. These at least made attempts to keep track of issues, and understand things in wider contexts, over a fairly long period of time.

In such a context, the citizen has a limited choice. All one can do is to hope for the political class sticking to its promises. But, often, such promises are not good enough, or simply even overlook the main issues that affect our lives.

In our village, no election manifesto promised that garbage would be dumped atop a local hillock, and the lives of some villagers turned into a stinking mess. Literally! Yet, based on political divides and also geography (half of the village doesn’t face this issue, being further away), such things have been pushed through over the decades. This has been true regardless which party has been in power.

Likewise, nobody gave a hint that our choices in matters of education, food possibilities or access to land would be restricted by legislative and administrative measures, in a manner we didn’t even anticipate.

So, what is the way forward?

Interest-groups (often dismissed as ‘vote banks’) need to avoid getting taken in. Rather than supporting this party or that, they need to identify their own valid concerns, and lobby for the same.

There is a thin dividing line between protecting a group’s interests, and indulging in a form of competitive communalism which takes everyone on a downward spiral. It is acceptable for groups of citizens to define their concerns, whether these stem from sharing a common village space, a cultural or religious identity, a gender or whatever.

Communities of different languages in Goa have concerns about their future, their growth or even their survival. What can politicians do for them in such a context, without playing off one group against the other?

Of course, voters, especially those in Goa, are an easily divided lot. It is easy to get one group to say exactly the opposite from what the others are asking for. This has been our experience since the past five decades ago. And citizens have shown signs of not adequately understanding issues, so much so that we leave the political class in charge – to define things however they choose. Very often, critical matters are decided on by single-sentence arguments.

To argue that things will improve when “good people” enter politics is to somehow miss the point. As things stand, we are coping with a runaway machine, one in which the people’s interest is seldom factored in, and often hardly matter. We have yet to see villagers raising local agendas, and asking politicians what would be their stand on these issues.

So far, the politicians have set the agenda, and the voter has made the most of what bones fall off the table. Electoral choices will make sense only when voters can clearly define their own interests, and ask politicians what exactly they can expect over these issues.

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