This tiny state’s first-ever cabinet minister has many similarities with Modi. His performance as CM provides a salutary lesson in what to expect from Modi’s Prime Ministership
By Vivek Menezes
Manohar Parrikar has been a behind-the-scenes powerhouse in the BJP ranks for over a decade, as well as one of the most prominent and long-time supporters of PM Narendra Modi. But most Indians’ first impression of the genial, salt-and-pepper-haired Goan politician came from the tears that welled up in his eyes during the press conference announcing that he had accepted the job of defense minister. “It is very difficult for me to leave the state,” he said, “I will go with a heavy heart.”
Parrikar’s promotion into the highest echelons of national politics has been predicted and expected ever since the BJP won its sweeping mandate earlier this year. Part of the reason is his reputation for integrity: India’s defense ministry is the world’s largest arms importer, and scams and scandals have plagued it for decades. Another big factor is the IIT-Bombay graduate’s competence and efficiency, virtues that Modi has sought to project as talismanic in his governance.
But the main reasons for Parrikar’s rise to the center as Goa’s first-ever cabinet minister can be found in the multiple synchronicities and connections between his career and the unexpected rise of Modi within the BJP and then across India’s electoral landscape. It is his relationship with Parrikar that has led the PM to repeatedly refer to India’s smallest state as a kind of personal lucky charm (his first visit outside Delhi as PM was to Goa). And the Modi wave in Indian politics was presaged identically by a Parrikar-led BJP wave in Goa.
Manohar Gopalkrishna Prabhu Parrikar was born in 1955 in Mapusa, a bustling market town in North Goa, when it was still part of the Portuguese Estado da India. That part of Goa belongs to the Velhas Conquistas, the “Old Conquests” which constitute the very first European intrusion into Asia, and remained a Portuguese territory from the early 16th century right till 1961. That’s when Nehru finally lost patience with negotiations and sent in Indian troops to conquer and annex the last remaining colonial “teardrop on the face of India”.
Goa’s laureate Bakibab Borkar wrote about his countrymen at the time: “The kinship and co-operation forged unto them by the aesthetic impact of Goa’s rich scenery taught them the art of living in peace and friendship, and inspired them to strive for nobler ideals. They amalgamated into a single society, with one common language and one cultural heritage.”
But the political climate after 1961 laid bare deep divisions and sectarian conflicts. Despite Nehru et al, the Congress found no support—Goans simply did not share the same history as the rest of India. Instead, two regional parties fought for control: the Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party (MGP) with massive support from the previously disenfranchised rural majority (and a mandate to seek merger with Maharashtra), and the United Goans Party backed by most Catholics (which sought to preserve Goa’s unique identity). Interestingly, the MGP held power for almost two decades (Catholics are only 30 percent of the state population), but the merger for Maharashtra was defeated in a historic referendum that paved the way for Goa to become a state.
Parrikar being received in his office in New Delhi after taking over as union defense minister
All through Manohar Parrikar’s childhood, in a pattern that persists today, most of the top schools in Goa had links to the Catholic Church. His parents, like many other Konkani Brahmin families, sought to underlie the Catholic school education with a bedrock of Hindu revivalism via the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)—at the time still a Konkani-speaking Chitpavan Brahmin-dominated organization. Even before he got into IIT, Parrikar had become a mukhya shikshak (chief instructor). Goa became a state in 1989, the same year he returned from Bombay to become a very young sanghchalak (local director). Just five years later, in 1994, he was elected to the legislative assembly, where he has dominated the proceedings.
The image of a down-to-earth politician has endeared Parrikar to Goans. He frequents rustic eateries and is happy to ride on the back of a scooter
At that time, Goa’s politics were a national laughing stock. Desertions and government collapses were routine. Between 1990 and 2002, 13 separate governments ruled the state. A free-for-all prevailed as squabbling regional factions and a deeply cynical Congress overlooked the quiet, steady emergence of the BJP. First, Parrikar had only four colleagues with him in the legislature. By 2000, when he became chief minister for the first time, there were more than a dozen. In 2002, the BJP won 17 seats, and Parrikar emerged as the paramount politician of his generation in Goa.
Though he later lost his chair to another set of defections, and led the BJP to defeat against the Congress in 2007, Parrikar retained tremendous support across the state. He gets uncommon affection from Goa’s voters, regardless of religion, caste or economic background. Long before Arvind Kejriwal drew admiration for his modest mien, Parrikar’s identity in politics was firmly established as a short-sleeves-and-sandals-wearing common man, content to ride economy class or even on the back of a scooter.
A widower since 1990, (his wife Medha succumbed to cancer) he famously frequents rustic roadside stalls for snacks and meals.But within the BJP, the Goan became increasingly identified as standard-bearer of a younger generation that could catapult the party past the Congress. After the party suffered humiliating setbacks at the polls in 2009, it was Parrikar who bluntly started to make the case for his long-time RSS buddy, Modi, versus the aloof, patrician LK Advani.
“Pickle tastes good when it is left to mature for a year. But if you keep it for more than two years, it turns rancid. Advaniji’s period is more or less over,” he is said to have remarked. But Advani’s hold on the party he led for so many years was not very easy to loosen. Parrikar had to again speak up forcefully at the na-tional executive meeting of BJP in 2013, which was held in his home constituency of Panjim, repeatedly telling the national media that he could easily detect a growing nat-ional clamor for Modi to be the face of the BJP.
The main reasons for Parrikar’s rise to the center as Goa’s first-ever cabinet minister can be found in the multiple synchronicities and connections between his career and the rise of Modi within the BJP and across India’s electoral landscape.
SIMILAR TO MODI
By this time, Parrikar had become one of the main spokesmen for the RSS-BJP combine, having won the state spectacularly for his party in 2012. In an uncannily similar fashion to Modi’s win on the national stage this year, the BJP in Goa thrashed all opposition and won an unprecedented comfortable majority. What is more, Parrikar managed to unite Catholics and Hindus, upper and lower castes, rural and urban populations. As in Modi’s win in 2014, the voters seemed to set aside ideology and past experiences to vote for good governance, cleaner politics and efficient administration.
But great expectations in politics have a way of leading directly to disappointment. And so, the details of Parrikar’s performance as the dominant CM of Goa, provide a salutary lesson in what to expect from Modi’s prime ministership in the coming years.
Both started with endearing gestures—Parrikar dismissed his security cover, Modi wept when entering parliament. But the record of the past two-and-a-half-years in Goa shows that Parrikar immediately backtracked on most of his election promises and rhetoric. Also, he has spent much time pushing big-budget, scam-tainted projects like the proposed Mopa airport, while adamantly backing cronies, such as the owners of the deeply unpopular “offshore” casinos in the Mandovi River.
Perhaps, most worryingly for Parrikar’s Goa—and by extension Modi’s India—is the degree of power that has become invested in one single pair of hands at the top. After he was re-elected in 2012, Parrikar kept five
crucial portfolios for himself: finance, home, town and country planning, mining and education. All the important businesses of the Goa government filtered through his office. The result is an administrative bottleneck with preferred bureaucrats wielding extraordinary power, and everyone else reduced to petitioners. The government, elected on Parrikar’s promise of “zero-corruption”, now rates among India’s worst when it comes to bribes required to get anything done.
Despite persistent support for the mining lobby that looted Goa for a decade, and cheerleading for a dubious second airport and prominent friendship with casino tyco-ons, Parrikar still retains considerable affection from a broad majority of people in Goa. Most insist that he does the best he can in difficult circumstances.
If he can maintain that knack, he could easily emerge as one of the most popular ministers in Delhi, and a strong candidate to succeed Modi.