Power or out of power, the child of controversy and the master of real politic, Babush Monserrate, wears the tag of a fixer, a Robin hood, a government toppler, coalition matchmaker and political cupid, with ease, and some would say, elan. It doesn’t matter what the flavour of the political season or what the political catchphrase is, Babush-ponn as a political genre has become a permanent mix in any political cauldron, including one which is ostensibly spiced with Goenkarponn.
Is this a sign of opportunism or tragedy? The answer really doesn’t matter because this is a hard reality. While no political party in Goa, inspite of pronouncements made about Monserrate, can ever make him politically untouchable, figure out for yourself, if this is a measure of Monserrate’s political greatness or Goa’s weakness. It is a fact that no political party can ever take the high moral ground on dalliances, flirtations and alliances with Monserrate, because they have all engaged with him, till Monserrate has broken the engagement, except when Manohar Parrikar dropped him from the cabinet.
In this case, Mr Parrikar benefits from Monserrate’s latest action. With Monserrate joining the Goa Forward, the Chief Minister’s return election as an MLA is almost a given, while earlier, with Monserrate contesting on a Congress ticket, would have made the fight hanging on a razor’s edge. It’s almost like India now playing Zimbabwe in a cricket world cup final and not Australia
And this match becomes a total mismatch. This happens even as the back story of Monserrate’s controversies including his biggest mantle of infamy his alleged role in converting agricultural and protected spaces into swathes of concrete, under the mask of development, continues to play. But as time goes on, this becomes a background noise you are used to. It doesn’t bother the discourse. Nor does it enhance it. The story that emerges from this is that Monserrate’s actions as minister and MLA in his constituency have not caused any major political disruption in his life. He or candidates backed by him, continue to win St Cruz and Taleigao as a given. The Congress MLA in St Cruz has openly and officially called Monserrate his “boss” immediately after winning the seat in the 2017 Assembly elections. Barring his loss in Panjim, which remained Parrikar’s bastion by proxy even after the resigned from the seat, the controversies surrounding Monserrate have never affected his political march and some would even argue that they helped in his portrayal of the victimised messiah.
From the intellectual standpoint, there are arguments driving home the point that if there is a visible association with political forces like Monserrate, the groundswell of support to those parties gets hit. But when has any of Monserrate’s actions come in the way of him wining elections or being part of the power centre. When he finally lost in Panjim, in March, it took him just four months to joining the ruling political team in Goa, riding undoubtedly, on the fact that even Chief Minister Parrikar would have preferred any other candidate to contest against.
Understanding Monserrate’s success is complex if you want it to and really simple if you know what you are looking for and what’s going on. Do remember that the questions on whether this is good for Goa or not, is a corollary to this. Firstly let us understand what’s going on. And before we go on, here’s disclaimer: The controversies and charges and political comments on land manipulations and massive conversions during his tenure as TCP minister is a matter of public record, though he is defending charges of economic and criminal offences. The narrative is in the public domain. He hasn’t been charged with any act of corruption, though there is no doubt that he gave legal paint to colour the reckless manner in which Goa’s land use was changed, to allow the building and real estate lobby to trample over our land’s open spaces.
Therefore his image as a ‘crony of capitalists’ if not a ‘crony capitalist’ himself exists and at the cost of repetition, this hasn’t mattered either to his constituents or the capitalists who feed into and feed off the system that Monserrate has lorded over.
At this juncture, an address by former RBI Governor Raghuram Rajan, at the Lalit Doshi Memorial Lecture, in Mumbai on August 2014, on the issue of crony capitalism and its links to politics, is an excellent background layer to this narrative and discourse. Rajan made this speech in the national context of the politician businessman nexus and the patronage they receive from their underprivileged political constituents.
Excerpts of the speech: “We had substituted the crony socialism of the past with crony capitalism, where the rich and the influential are alleged to have received land, natural resources and spectrum in return for payoffs to venal politicians.
By killing transparency and competition, crony capitalism is harmful to free enterprise, opportunity, and economic growth. And by substituting special interests for the public interest, it is harmful to democratic expression. If there is some truth to these perceptions of crony capitalism, a natural question is why people tolerate it. Why do they vote for the venal politician who perpetuates it?”
Rajan then goes on to answer his own question in his own immutable way.
Excerpt “I argued that the tolerance for the venal politician is because he is the crutch that helps the poor and underprivileged navigate a system that gives them so little access. This may be why he survives. But perhaps the system tolerates corruption because the street smart politician is better at making the wheels of the bureaucracy creak, however slowly, in favour of his constituents. And such a system is self-sustaining. An idealist who is unwilling to “work” the system can promise to reform it, but the voters know there is little one person can do. Moreover, who will provide the patronage while the idealist is fighting the system? So why not stay with the fixer you know even if it means the reformist loses his deposit?
So the circle is complete. The poor and the under-privileged need the politician to help them get jobs and public services. The politician needs the businessman to provide the funds that allow him to supply patronage to the poor and fight elections. The corrupt businessman needs the politician to get public resources and contracts cheaply. And the politician needs the votes of the poor and the underprivileged. Every constituency is tied to the other in a cycle of dependence, which ensures that the status quo prevails”.
Can one deny that the reason why regional satraps like Monserrate, stay relevant exactly because of how the system works on this cycle of dependence? And because Monserrate’s voters continue to keep him relevant, no political party can afford to ostracise him completely.
The Goa Forward has indeed taken a calculated risk by getting Monserrate to join the party. But as a formula, it’s always better to get him to be family (by actually joining) rather than be just a friend, given the notion that political family ties are probably more cemented than those of political friendship. But the big ask is how will they balance the narrative of Goenkarponn, with the presence of Monserrate?
The risk has been taken because the very reason why Goa Forward chose to back and prop this government, was because of real politic. The decision was met with opposition and outrage in parts of Salcete and questions will, and should, continue to be asked. The Goa Forward supremo Vijai Sardesai is banking on two broad, though unrelated, developments between March and July. The amendment of the tree act, giving the coconut tree back its status, the transfer of tenancy cases to mamlatdars (albeit with strict conditions) and the decision to review clearances of projects granted by the IPB were all big ticket pre-poll promises of his party. And these have been met. Will these be enough to give them bragging rights as the custodians of Goenkarponn? We are yet to see how this plays out.
But it is the second development which has made Goa Forward take the calculated risk of embracing the real politic of expanding the party’s base beyond Salcete and hoping to be in a position to add more MLAs, and that is the disarray that the single largest party in the assembly the Congress is in. They were caught napping when Monserrate, in Hindi movie style, left the venue of his wedding with the Congress, to elope and get hitched to Goa Forward. And the Congress has no leader to lead and is struggling for a candidate for the Panjim by-poll, with its president Shantaram Naik spending his last days at the Rajya Sabha asking questions on subjects like the promotion of the Kunbi saree.
With the Congress looking like a party without a plan, and its earlier pied piper Babush, now with him, Sardesai feels he can indulge in real politic, which may not seem consistent with pure Goenkarponn.
Over time we will know if this is working or not. He still has to win Salcete, which still nurses feelings of ‘betrayal’, and defend actions with justifications, which surely may be there, like backing the government on the river nationalisation.
But democracy and the power game is all about numbers and not feelings and this is the cruel truth. And this is where “additional help” and a bit of Babush-ponn works in times of ‘Goenkarponn’.