Eight of 11 Congress lawmakers in Goa joined the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on Wednesday, marking the latest in a raft of defections from the party at a time it is in the middle of a 3,700 km-long foot march to revive its flagging electoral fortunes.
The defections, which included former chief minister Digambar Kamat and leader of opposition Michael Lobo, came two months after the first murmurings of trouble in the party’s state unit. At that time, the rebels couldn’t muster enough numbers to evade disqualification proceedings under the anti-defection law; on Wednesday, they were comfortably above the two-thirds threshold required by law.
“We have joined the BJP to strengthen Prime Minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Pramod Sawant so that development work can be carried out . The Congress has commenced a Bharat Jodo Yatra but we have started the Congress Chhodo and BJP Jodo in Goa,” Lobo said.
The shock exits leave the Opposition decimated and push the BJP past the majority mark of 21 in the assembly on its own. The eight members passed a resolution to merge their group with the BJP, which earlier had 20 and now 28 members in the 40-member assembly. The Congress has three members and other parties hold another four MLAs — AAP two, Goa Forward and Revolutionary Goans Party one each. The BJP also has the support of the two member Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party and three independents.
The Congress attacked the BJP. “Operation Kichad (muck) of BJP in Goa has been fast-tracked because of the visible success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra. BJP is nervous,” Congress general secretary in-charge of communications Jairam Ramesh, tweeted.
The defections mirror a similar embarrassment suffered by the party in 2019, when 10 of its 15 lawmakers in the state joined the BJP. To forestall any such possibility, the Congress made its candidates take a pledge of loyalty ahead of the assembly elections this summer (which the incumbent BJP won). But the rebels said they had a change of heart.
“I am a man who has faith in God. I went back to God, I told God, these are the circumstances and asked what I should do. God said you take whatever decision you want, I am behind you,” Kamat said.
At least three of the breakaway group are likely to be accommodated in the cabinet, BJP officials aware of the matter said.
Kamat and Lobo led the lawmakers as they arrived at the state assembly though the House was not in session. They had already conveyed their voluntary decision to quit the Congress to speaker Ramesh Tawadkar, who was in Delhi. Tawadkar arrived in the state later in the evening and granted his assent to the ‘merger’.
Lobo, who switched from the BJP to Congress prior to the assembly polls, said the rebels held a meeting of the Congress legislative party and took the decision to merge with the BJP.
“A resolution was moved …after signing the resolution, it was taken to the legislature secretary and one copy was sent to the chief minister. We are merging with the BJP. Intimation has been sent to the Speaker. We have spoken on the phone, sent him an email and fax is also being sent. And his reply is expected immediately,” Lobo said.
The other leaders are Lobos’ wife Delilah, Kedar Naik, Rajesh Faldesai, Aleixo Sequeira, Sankalp Amonkar and Rodolfo Fernandes. The members were formally granted primary membership of the BJP.
The exits came on the eighth day of the Congress’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, a 3,570km pan-India march led by Rahul Gandhi aimed at rejuvenating the party’s moribund grassroots network. The party will also take up long-pending internal elections on October 17.
“A daily dose of diversion & disinformation is handed out to undermine the Yatra. We remain undeterred. We will overcome these dirty tricks of the BJP,” Ramesh said.
Goa has a history of defections. It had 13 chief ministers in 12 years between 1989 and 2000. As many as 27 of the 40 lawmakers switched sides in the previous term of the assembly.
Lobo accused the party of disunity. “We have seen how Congress leaders want to pull each other down. Not only in Goa, it is happening nationally. It is happening all over India. There is no discipline. If there is no discipline, if the leaders do not want to bring everybody together, then it cannot be called Bharat Jodo yatra,” Lobo said.
Kamat accused Congress of ignoring him and denying him the post of the leader of the Opposition. “I said that what was happening in the Congress was not right. And when Ghulam Nabi Azad resigned and wrote a letter…if you read it, you will be able to draw your conclusions,” Kamat said. He was referring to a letter by former Union minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who quit the party last month and blamed Rahul Gandh’s leadership and functioning style .
Sawant said the eight lawmakers joined the BJP for development. “They have supported us and I welcome them. This is a historic decision,” the CM said.
Back in July, a group of breakaway Congress MLAs went incommunicado and were set to join the BJP, however they couldn’t secure the requisite numbers since the Congress quickly sequestered five of the MLAs it managed to reach out to, thereby ensuring that the breakaway group couldn’t get the required eight number.
People aware of the matter said Kamat and Lobo’s efforts to win over more lawmakers continued. Last month, Lobo visited Delhi and later claimed he was there to take part in the Congress protest against price rise and inflation though he was not seen there. Kamat too denied reports about travelling to Delhi.
Kamat and Lobo steered the defection move and convinced Sankalp Amonkar, a career Congressman who rose up the ranks, and Rodolfo Fernandes, whose mother Victoria Fernandes was a long-time Congress member and minister, to join the group, people familiar with the backroom negotiations, said.
The Congress’s plea for disqualifying Kamat and Lobo for colluding with the BJP is pending with Tawadkar for two months.