Some Goa stories are best told over a glass of beer. The story of the rise and fall of Goa’s regional parties is one for three tall, frosted glasses. Long before Kingfisher beer swooped down on Goa and the colourful bird came to be branded on billboards, night clubs, dance-floors and beach shacks, three local beer brands—Arlem, Kings and Belo—ruled the roost. Belo and Kings beers were brewed and bottled by the Impala distillery in Assolda near Margao in South Goa. Arlem was bottled at the Chowgule clan-owned brewery at Arlem, the southern town’s suburb.
Arlem’s pilsner and continental lagers breezed through its heyday in the 1980s. Belo was the poor man’s beer—if you were lucky, one could find a cash coupon under the crown—while Kings was the distillery’s upmarket brand, sold in popular stubby bottles and preferred by sun-tanned European tourists. The going for the three brands was good as long as the coastal state skipped the radar of the Bangalore-based liquor giant United Breweries. Kingfisher beer hadn’t zeroed in on a deep dive in the Goa beer market just yet.
Two decades before the two beer brewers, Chowgules and the Impala distillery, hogged the state’s beer bazaar, oblivious to the future challenges by the Kingfisher behemoth, Goa’s political landscape was also dominated by two political parties. The Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) headed by the state’s first chief minister Dayanand Bandodkar and the United Goans (UG) party led by Jack de Sequeira. The two parties occupied ideologically opposite poles and there were few similarities in their respective patriarchs. Bandodkar, a non-Brahmin Hindu, was a short-statured man with a clean jaw and sported a close crop. Sequeira, a Catholic gentry, was a tall bloke with a long flowing beard and an easy grin that cut through facial bristles.
The MGP was a Hindu conservative party founded with the objective of merging a newly-liberated Goa into the neighbouring state of Maharashtra. United Goans was a Christian-dominated party, which was opposed to the merger. “The regional parties sprang up in Goa after liberation because there were two opposing viewpoints. The MGP insisted that Marathi is the language of the Goans and therefore linguistic affinity was sought to be established with the neighbouring state of Maharashtra,” says Ramakant Khalap, a former Union minister of state for law. “The idea was that such a merger with Maharashtra would create a homogenous society and help the progress of the Goan people. As opposed to this, the other view was that Konkani was the language of Goa and not Marathi. Marathi was something alien, foreign. As a result, the United Goans party invited adherence to that viewpoint.”
Large parts of Hindu-dominated North Goa rooted for merger with Maharashtra and were pro-Marathi in its outlook, while the Catholic-dominated parts of South Goa and the coastal belt were in favour of Goa being carved out as a stand-alone territory with Konkani at the core of the territory’s linguistic culture. The social conflict of opinion over land and language had caused an ideological as well as an emotional chasm in Goa.
In the region’s first democratic election in 1963, two years after the Liberation of Goa, the MGP and UG emerged as the two most successful parties, winning 14 and 12 seats respectively, with the Congress, which played a significant role in the eviction of colonial rule, winning just one seat in the 30-member legislature.
Bandodkar was elected the chief minister, while Sequeira led the Opposition. Both parties were to clash against each other once more ahead of India’s first and only referendum till date. The ‘Opinion Poll’ was facilitated after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi accepted the Goa opposition’s demand to conduct a referendum to decide whether the state should merge with Maharashtra or remain an independent region under the Indian Union of States and Union Territories.
Blackout Defaced wall writings of AAP. Photograph by Aradhana Seth
Although Bandodkar was a popular chief minister at the time, the MGP’s overture to the people of Goa to merge with Maharashtra for a better future failed, with the UG party-backed agenda of carving an independent identity for Goa winning by 34,021 votes. While the UG was elated at the result of the referendum, the MGP too found its mojo back in the elections which were held soon after, winning 16 seats this time. The UG party won 12. The Congress was routed in the polls, failing to win even a single seat. While the two political parties were now back in their comfortable ruling and opposition grooves, the pro-merger MGP and the anti-merger UG party had already fulfilled a key part of their respective political destinies, now that the people of Goa had spoken during the referendum.
Apart from the question of territory, the other key issue which both parties had stoked over the years was the matter of supremacy of language. Is Marathi the mother tongue of the Goan born or is it Konkani? By the time this contentious issue was addressed, the United Goans was already on its last legs. Fractured by two splits, the party was on the verge of being merged into the Congress. In the mid-1980s, the language agitation took a violent turn, after which the state government performed a delicate balancing act in 1987 and decreed Konkani as Goa’s official language. Marathi was granted a status equal to Konkani. Once the two emotive issues of language and territory were laid to rest, both political parties appeared to have outlived their use and their appeal.
For the divided UG, the end was near and the MGP could never power itself to victory on its own steam after its last solo victory in 1977. The MGP still exists. It still sends a few elected lawmakers to the state assembly. The party, which was rooted to the upliftment of Goa’s Bahujan Samaj, an informal collective of non-Brahmin castes, is now a shell of its former self and run by a Brahmin duo, the Dhavalikar brothers.
Political observers cite a variety of reasons for the demise of the MGP and the UG. “The purpose behind the formation of the two opposing parties was almost over. They had achieved their goal. Some may say that the goals were not achieved in full strength. By and large the goals were achieved. Therefore, the need for a regional party was (diminished). Goa became a state, industrialisation set in, jobs and employment to the people. Therefore, it was thought that if Goa aligned with a national party ruling the country—the Congress—it would help the state achieve the desired goals,” says Khalap. Khalap is a Congress leader now, but was privy to both the rise and fall of the MGP’s prestige.
Just as the UB group’s Kingfisher beer branding and marketing blitz virtually eliminated local beer brands in the 1990s, the fall of the MGP and the UG coincided with the emergence of the Congress in Goa as a powerful force. After feeding off on breakaway legislators from both parties, the Congress under Pratapsingh Rane—who had quit the MGP in a huff in the mid-1970s—consolidated its position to rule the state for nearly two decades, with minor infractions.
Photographs: Chinki Sinha
It is not that regional parties as a phenomenon fizzed into ether since. Through the 1980s-90s, the MGP may have been on the conveyor belt of decline, but it still was the principal opposition party. Churchill Alemao, who went on to become a chief minister for a mere 18 days, had founded the United Goans Democratic Party in the early 1980s. In 2017, he also founded the Save Goa Front, a political party which merged with the Congress after the assembly polls that year.
Wilfred de Souza split the Congress in 1998 to float the Goa Rajiv Congress and led a government supported by the BJP and the MGP. Francisco Sardinha split the Congress in 2000 to float the Goa People’s Congress government in alliance with the BJP. Like the UG party, whose disintegration fuelled the Congress ambitions in Goa, the grand old party’s disintegration in the 1990s led to the rise of BJP in Goa.
The 2017 assembly elections saw the formation of the Goa Forward (GF) party which won three seats. In its short span, however, the new regional party has swayed too conveniently with the winds of political ideology. It aligned with the BJP after the assembly polls despite running an aggressive campaign against the saffron party in the run-up. With the 2022 assembly polls around the corner, the GF is now in a pre-poll alliance with the Congress.
According to Rajendra Dessai, editor of Goa-based Marathi daily Dainik Herald, short-sightedness is a fatal flaw of the new crop of regional parties in the state, many of which were founded as a short-term ladder to grab immediate power. “They were extremely short-sighted and made compromises. You could say that the regional parties hacked at their own feet too often, hastening their demise,” Dessai says. Political commentator and former independent MLA Uday Bhembre says money has always been the Achilles heel for regional parties, especially when it comes to taking on national political parties who are armed with much bigger war chests. “To my mind, a major reason is money. The parties need money, as you know. As days pass, the amount of money that is required goes on increasing from thousands to lakhs and then lakhs to crores now. MGP and the UG party did not require this because of emotive issues which were dominant at that time,” he adds.
Bhembre was involved in the formation of the Goa Suraksha Manch, a political party spearheaded by rebel Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Subhash Velingkar. The party, however, failed to win a single seat in the 2017 assembly polls. “This does not apply to regional parties in larger states like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh or even West Bengal, maybe because they are in a position to raise resources, stakes being much bigger than in Goa. In Goa we have that limitation. Even if you have two big mine owners with you, that will not be sufficient any more to raise the money a regional party needs to contest elections,” Bhembre says.
The 2022 state assembly polls will witness the debut of a new regional party, Revolutionary Goans. Founded by Manoj Parab, a post-graduate in Geology and Earth Sciences, the party is rooted in nativist ideology. Parab says regional parties have lost the trust of the people because of constant compromises by politicians at the helm of such outfits. “They could not come to power because the leaders who formed the regional parties could not be trusted by the people. They would target only a certain section of the population. They did not have an ideology or vision. They did not have the guts to contest all forty seats or a maximum number of seats and form a government. Their ideology was all about compromise, ‘get elected and get sold out’. That was their ideology. All they wanted to win was four to five seats and then put themselves up for auction or sale,” he says.
Ahead of the February polls, emergence of new regional political parties like the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi Party, with their aggressive approach and laptop-toting consultants, has put the fear of extinction in regional parties like Goa Forward. Its president Vijai Sardesai chose the cola metaphor—and not one with a beer —to explain how regional parties might just not be able to survive such an onslaught.
“This prevailing situation is such that even if regional forces come together, you can be subsumed by bigger players. It is like Top Cola versus Coca-Cola…It is panning out like that. Everyone wanted (Erasmo de) Sequeira’s Top Cola. But Top Cola disappeared after Coca-Cola arrived (in Goa). We (regional parties) do not want to disappear,” he says. Top Cola was incidentally bottled by a company run by Jack de Sequeira’s son Erasmo. The cola drink was as local and as popular as beers like Arlem, Belo and Kings, until the fizz eventually ran out in the face of bigger, pan-India competitors.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Kings of Good Times!")
(Views expressed are personal)
Mayabhushan Nagvenkar is the Goa correspondent for Indo-Asian News Service