It’s half past seven on a Sunday morning. The Aam Aadmi Party has just concluded its statewide ‘jhadu yatra’, beginning from the constituency of Mandrem, represented in the Goa Assembly by the sitting Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar and ending in what AAP hopes will be the constituency of the next chief minister, Elvis Gomes’ Cuncolim.
The 53-year-old officer, initially posted in Mumbai and then permanently in Goa under the Goa Civil Service, Gomes opted for voluntary retirement in September 2016, after ‘being sidelined’ by the ruling BJP government. He was to be inducted in the IAS a year ago but lost out following a revision in the seniority list. Politicians across parties accept that Elvis is among the state’s honest officers, but now that he has entered politics, ‘he’s one of us’.
Post-retirement, Gomes had an offer to go abroad and work in the corporate world, but being a bureaucrat for years had him thinking that he could do much more to better his state of Goa. He says much of Arvind Kejriwal’s and the Aam Aadmi Party’s ideology gelled with his. “I had offered my services through the party rather than electoral politics. But they found I could do both. I partly read Kejriwal’s book Swarajya and that gelled with me. The ideology of reaching out to the people rather than playing politics is one I agree with,” Gomes says.
Many allege Gomes will only split votes of larger parties and not win big in this election despite having candidates that could bring about a change at a time when the ethos of Goa is facing its toughest challenge, a view volunteers of the new party counter, claiming that there is a swell of base support.
With four days left for election campaigning to end, indianexpress.com spent a day with the chief ministerial candidate.
We arrive at Gomes’ residence located in the quiet bylanes of Panzoncorne, Cuncolim a little before eight. A quick cup of coffee and the Gomes family is headed to Our Lady of Piety chapel – a short walk from their residence – for Sunday service. The theme at the Eucharistic service this Sunday is about the February 4 elections. An advisory of sorts – highlighting the present government’s role in forced patriotism, demonetisation and changes in the education policy, among other issues – is left for the faithful to read and share. “The guidelines are clear that they are routing for honest, transparent candidates. When they talk about such candidates, they are available only in AAP,” says Gomes.
Christians constitute about 26 per cent of the state’s electorate – a significant vote bank, specially in the south, where constituencies such as Cuncolim and Benaulim are predominantly Christian. Before every election, the Church issues a statement that, in a way, suggests what one should keep in mind before casting their vote. In the 2012 election, many were of the view that the Church had spoken tough on corruption – a veiled attack on the Congress Party. This time, it appears to be voicing its concern over the controversial policies of the BJP government – both at the Centre and at the state level.
As the service ends, Gomes steps out to meet those from the neighbourhood. It’s the last Sunday before election day and Gomes knows having so many people gathered at one place is an opportunity he can’t afford to miss. Quick handshakes and a few words of support later, he heads home for a quick breakfast. Time is running short and he needs to be at his election office where volunteers have already gathered to plan out the day’s schedule. “We will do some door-to-door campaigning and a public meeting in the evening,” he says. His son Aaron, meanwhile, takes charge of his father’s cellphone, filtering calls from supporters and party workers while maintaining a diary that holds the schedule for the next few days.
Elvis’s first stop is his party office, off the main road in Cuncolim. He’s greeted by volunteers who show him a tweet by former AAP leader Yogendra Yadav who had quit the party to form Swarajya Abhiyan. Otherwise critical of AAP and Kejriwal, Yadav had this to say: “AAP Goa retains some original flavour: Honest CM nominee Cleaner candidates than rest. Tough issues like mining, casino. Hope it does well!”
With 95 per cent of their door-to-door campaign complete, a few minutes goes into planning the day and volunteers are off to cover what’s left, as well as areas that need a little extra push. Gomes is headed to Balli and Pattem, a ten-minute drive from their campaign office. A cluster of Catholic Scheduled Tribe dominated residences, volunteers feel there’s still a need to push the party’s message in a locality that has traditionally been a Congress vote bank.
Houses with tiled roofs, bright coloured walls and floors made of cow-dung, help keep the room cool. Gomes and his team knock on doors asking people whether they knew which electoral symbol they need to look for. “Lucky for us,” Aaron says, “every house has a broom outside, so we just have to point out to it and remind them: you sweep your house daily, now it’s time to sweep Goa clean.”
In Pattem, Gomes says convincing the men isn’t as easy as the women. “Many fathers have died young here due to alcohol abuse. Money is still a factor here, but women understand… they want a better future for their children.”
The strategy adopted during door-to-door campaigning is a little different. The team splits into two. While Gomes and a few others spend a few minutes speaking to the residents, a second set of volunteers stay back and explain the new schemes that AAP has proposed in its manifesto. They also handout a social security card with a registration number. “It’s an assurance card that all our promises will be met. Other parties have not fulfilled the promises they’ve given and therefore the confidence level of people has came down drastically. They think all politicians are the same,” Gomes says.
Midway through the door-to-door campaign, Elvis needs to arrange for a prominent face to speak at his corner meetings. AAP leader from Delhi Ashutosh is caught up at another campaign in the state. Gomes needs a replacement.
It’s 1.15 pm and we’re back at the office, with the morning gone in door to door campaigning, Gomes now sits down with his backend team. How many people are needed at the polling stations? Will voters come to the polling station pre-decided? Who should be at which station? Elvis and his campaign managers accept they are first time politicians but a strategy they hope to arrive at, if they need support from each vaddo or ward.
About half hour later, Gomes heads home for lunch. Volunteers have arranged a modest Goan lunch – fish curry, rice, chicken xacuti and a vegetable dish tendli (ivy gourd).
Much of what the AAP promises in its manifesto, is similar to its populist policies in Delhi. Free water supply, cheaper electricity, fish for all scheme, vaddo or ward clinics, among other schemes. On the contentious mining issue, the party has endorsed a public manifesto by Goa Foundation, an NGO that has been battling the issue in the apex court. “We have already said mining revenue will go to a people’s fund. It’s just the technicality of it that is left,”says Gomes. On the moral issue of casinos in Goa, the party’s manifesto says it will rid the state of all casinos – both on land and offshore – if elected to power.
Back in the office at about 3 pm, the target now is to identify key tribal leaders who can pass on the message to their supporters. Gomes takes help from his party colleague Advocate John Fernandes – who is contesting from Quepem – and tribal leader Anthony Pango, and we’re headed to Ambaulim-Quepem. Fernandes knows key tribal faces like Shantaram, Rosario Fernandes and tuition teacher Natolino, in that area of the constituency, that can help muster support. A quick chat with each of them and Gomes heads to the residence of tribal activist Ramdas Naik where about 20-odd women have gathered to hear him. “What has the Congress done for you? They keep alternating power with the BJP. We are the only party that has given five tickets to women and four tickets to STs,” Gomes says, going on to highlight the key aspects of the party’s manifesto.
With the sun fast setting, Gomes still has a few others he needs to meet before he can end campaigning in the locality. Meanwhile, preparations are on at the ground next to St Francis Xavier church in Macasana, where Gomes has to address a corner meeting. He expects a crowd of about 250-odd people to turn up. After a 20-minute drive, through fields and hills in the lesser commercial areas of Cuncolim, we finally arrive at Macasana where speakers are blaring out popular Konkani songs. About 200 people have gathered, some choosing to stand on the fringes. We stop for a quick cup of tea and a plate of onion pakoras at a stall dimly lit with a kerosene lamp. The elderly woman managing it asks: “Have you come for the aam aadmi rally? What time will it begin?”
A sense of uncertainty seems prevalent in Cuncolim. AAP vs Congress vs Independent Joaquim Alemao vs incumbent Rajan Naik of the BJP. There is, however, a wave of anti-incumbency. “We know Elvis is a good candidate… we’ve heard a lot about his work in the government. But can AAP stop the BJP from coming to power?” Maria D’Souza asks, voicing a concern that many who are considering voting for the new party have. Will Gomes manage to convince the fence-sitters? We’ll know on March 11.