Barely two months after the Congress seemed to have staved off a defection bid, eight of its 11 MLAs led by top leaders Digambar Kamat and Michael Lobo joined the ruling BJP, reducing the opposition party to just three members in a House of 40. The mass defection — a 2019 redux for Goa Congress — is hugely embarrassing for the party in the middle of Rahul Gandhi’s ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ (Unite India March), at which the BJP has been taking jibes: “Jodo (Unite) your party first.”
With eight MLAs breaking away as a group — that is two thirds of the party strength — they can’t be disqualified under the anti-defection law. These include Michael Lobo’s wife Delilah Lobo, Rajesh Phaldesai, Kedar Naik, Sankalp Amonkar, Aleixo Sequeira and Rudolf Fernandes.
“It is Congress chhoro (quit Congress), BJP ko jodo,” quipped Michael Lobo as the MLAs announced their switch in what’s being called yet another ‘Operation Lotus’, named after the BJP’s poll symbol.
“It’s ‘Operation Kichad (Mud)’,” reacted Congress spokesperson Pawan Khera. “The BJP used all kinds of tactics — central probe agencies, threats by goons, lure of money — to do this, because it is rattled by the Bharat Jodo Yatra.” Congress ally Goa Forward Party reacted with scorn too, saying the defecting MLAs are “symbols of pure evil”.
Digambar Kamat and Michael Lobo were at the centre of the switchover speculation in July too, and the Congress had even asked the speaker to disqualify them under the anti-defection law. The party removed Michael Lobo as Leader of Opposition, but no replacement was named.
This morning, the MLAs’ meeting with the Speaker set off the speculation as the assembly is not in session. State BJP chief Sadanand Shet Tanavade then told news agency PTI that they are joining the party.
In Kamat, a former chief minister, had said he was “shocked and stunned” at the allegations of leading a division. Even Michael Lobo, who was in the BJP before joining the Congress ahead of elections earlier this year, had claimed there was “no talk of any division”.
Today Mr Kamat said, “We are unhappy with Congress. We saw what happened with Ghulam Nabi Azad,” referring to the senior leader who recently quit the party while questioning Rahul Gandhi’s political acumen. “We will work with PM Narendra Modi and Goa CM Pramod Sawant for betterment of the state.”
Goa Congress splintered in a similar fashion in 2019, when two thirds of its assembly strength — 10 of 15 MLAs — defected to the BJP, which is why the party this year made its candidates take a loyalty vow in the presence of Rahul Gandhi. Evidently, that didn’t work on at least eight of them.
The defection wasn’t unexpected even though in July the Congress managed to keep at least seven of its MLAs with it. There was no final move by the four others, including — besides Lobo and Kamat — Kedar Naik and Delilah Lobo, Lobo’s wife.
Senior leader Mukul Wasnik had been deputed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi to handle the crisis, and he appeared to have stopped it. Or not quite, going by what’s happened today.