And then there were three: Ex-Advocate General to pilot to hotelier, the Goa MLAs standing by Congress

And then there were three: Ex-Advocate General to pilot to hotelier, the Goa MLAs standing by Congress

Barely one kilometre apart, the scenes at the Goa unit headquarters of the ruling BJP and the Opposition Congress in Panaji appeared to be a study in contrasts on Wednesday. While neither of the party offices is spacious, both have a small dais with a space for about five chairs that is used for press conferences and other events.

At the BJP office on the Atmaram Borkar Marg, the dais fell far short of accommodating senior Goa party leaders, including Chief Minister Pramod Sawant, and eight Congress MLAs who crossed over to the BJP prompting this induction event.

At Congress House on the busy Dayanand Bandodkar Marg, however, the Goa Pradesh Congress Committee (GPCC) president, Amit Patkar, sat comfortably on the stage with what was left of the party in the Goa Legislative Assembly – its three MLAs, including former Goa Advocate General Carlos Ferreira, commercial pilot Yuri Alemao and hotelier Altone D’costa. All of them are first-time legislators and Christians. While Ferreira represents the Aldona constituency in North Goa, Alemao and D’costa represent Cuncolim and Quepem constituencies, respectively, in South Goa.

Putting up a brave face at the press event on Wednesday, Patkar, 38, who took over as the GPCC president following the state Assembly polls earlier this year, said despite losing eight defector MLAs, including the former Leader of the Opposition, to the BJP, the party still had moral ground, ethics and integrity. “I am very proud of our three MLAs. It’s not that they did not face any pressure. They may not talk about it. But they have stood by their principles, values and sanskaar…” he said.

In July, a week after the first attempt of the Congress MLAs at defection was foiled, the party leadership had got its five MLAs flown to Chennai for a weekend “to avoid pressure tactics and threats.” For a merger of the legislature party with any other party, the consenting MLAs have to be present before the Speaker, even as at least two-thirds of a party’s MLAs have to consent to the merger to circumvent the anti-defection law. With five MLAs away, the defectors could not have gathered eight of the total 11 MLAs to proceed with their plan.

The All India Congress Committee (AICC)’s Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao had then said that the Congress MLAs were in Tamil Nadu, where the Congress is part of the ruling DMK-led alliance, “voluntarily to avoid incessant attempts, continuous calls, pressure tactics and threats” made by the BJP. The five MLAs that the Congress had cloistered in Chennai included Sankalp Amonkar and Rudolfo Fernandes, who later joined the group of eight defectors.

One of the Goa Congress’s prominent legal faces, Ferreira, joined politics ahead of the Assembly polls, and contested from Aldona seat on the Congress ticket, defeating the two-time BJP MLA Glen Ticlo with a margin of 1823 votes.

Perhaps the most affable of the Congress’s 11 MLAs, Ferreira had garnered the goodwill even of his political opponents. However, in July when the defection pot came to a boil, his name too had surfaced among the would-be defectors. His was perhaps the most “shocking” name on that list. While both their names did the rounds in July, Ferreira and D’Costa eventually stayed with the Congress.

“In the art of war you always pretend you are attacking one side and you attack the other side,” Ferreira said. “This is our chance to revive the Congress party. The rot has been removed. The rot can finish your whole house but now we will come together to revive the party.”

Ferreira conceded that the affidavits that the election candidates had filed pledging their loyalty to the Congress had no legal standing. He however pointed out that the July 2019 defection of 10 Congress MLAs was still under litigation since a petition filed by former GPCC president Girish Chodankar seeking their disqualification has been pending in the Supreme Court.

Yuri Alemao, son of ex-Congress MLA and minister Joaquim Alemao, said he was not present on that January day when the oath-taking event was held by the Congress poll candidates at various places of worship, but it was his conscience that had kept him back in the grand old party.

He said the defection was unfortunate, saying “You can defy physics, gravity but how can these guys defy God? That is a million dollar question. They don’t even fear God… We have promised the people that we will stay loyal for five years and people voted us… I am not a commodity that can be purchased. There is no price tag on my head. There have to be values. You have to be loyal to the party.”

Alemao’s seat Cuncolim, won by his father in 2002 and 2007, has traditionally voted for the Congress. The example of his predecessor from the constituency, Clafasio Dias, who was among the 10 Congress defector MLAs in 2019 and lost the 2022 election as the BJP candidate, may also have acted as a deterrent for Alemao.

D’costa had pulled off a surprise victory by defeating Quepem MLA and ex-deputy CM Chandrakant Kavlekar on his turf. Kavlekar, former Leader of the Opposition, had led the 10 Congress MLAs’ defection in 2019. D’costa trounced him by 3,601 votes.

Choosing to stick by the Congress, D’costa said, “Destiny takes you to your destination. I stand by principles and beliefs which were taught by my parents, my elders. I am grateful that the Congress party gave me a ticket to contest. I was just an ordinary person among the party’s workers. The people of Quepem voted for me as a Congress candidate and I can still face them. I am a principled, god-fearing person and I am really satisfied I stood by my principles. We will stay with the party and work towards its growth.”