Parrikar fights 'proxy' war in Panaji bye-poll

For the last week and more, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been leading a virtual proxy electoral campaign for the Panaji bye-election scheduled to be held Friday.

Panaji: For the last week and more, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has been leading a virtual proxy electoral campaign for the Panaji bye-election scheduled to be held Friday.

The election, necessitated after his elevation to the central cabinet, has forced Parrikar to camp in the riverine city for more than a week to ensure that the constituency stays with the BJP for the sixth time running.

Four candidates are in the fray, including Parrikar's protege and former aide Siddharth Kuncolienkar (BJP) who faces the main challenge from Mayor Surendra Furtado (Congress).

The pressure of retaining the seat has forced the defence minister to stay put in Goa, where he puts in several hours every day canvassing along with Kuncalienkar and strategizing for what has become a prestige election for Parrikar, who has been elected five times in a row from Panaji.

His pitch to voters is simple enough.

"Elect one MLA and get one free," Parrikar told a public meeting Tuesday, the BJP's last major canvassing event, hinting that if Kuncolienkar was elected, he (Parrikar) would still be around in proxy to care for Panaji.

While the bye-poll contest has not been marked with political fireworks and overt sparring by the contestants, the importance of the election is not lost, especially on Parrikar, who has repeatedly expressed his longing for Goa and hinted at a possible return to state politics.

Winning Panaji, however, may not be a walk in the park for Kunkolienkar, who lacks his mentor's personality as well as quantum of achievement. Dissent in the BJP rank and file over the brusque manner in which his nomination was secured by Parrikar could also hurt him.

On the flipside, Congress candidate Surendra Furtado, a mayor, is also battling his own devils, the most prominent of them being lack of co-operation from Congress legislators.

Furtado, who has contested the Panaji seat twice in the past only to lose poorly, has been relying on an aggressive door-to-door campaign, with the contestant shying away from holding even a single election rally.

"The people of Panaji have seen my performance as mayor and councillor. They have to decide whether I can become a MLA or not," Furtado told IANS.

Furtado is also banking on the significant Christian vote in Panaji, especially in light of vandalization of Christian churches and the recent police assault on Christian demonstrators in Delhi, which has evoked a strong reaction amongst members of the minority community in Goa.

According to Joint Chief Electoral Officer Narayan Navti, this is perhaps the first time in Goan electoral history that none of the candidates in contest for a legislative seat has a criminal record.

"This is an extremely rare occurrence," Navti told IANS said.

While Panaji bid goodbye to IITian Parrikar after he became defence minister in November, the city's voters have an opportunity to vote for yet another Indian Institute of Technology-Mumbai alumnus in Samir Kelekar, an independent candidate.

A first timer to electoral politics, Kelekar, a tech professional with a doctorate from the prestigious Columbia University, moved from Bengaluru to Goa recently.

Asked about his chances, Kelekar says: "It's not going to be a cakewalk, but it's an electorate of just 30,000. It's a small constituency and we have volunteers. It is doable."

Lawyer Sadanand Vaingankar makes up the rest of the list for the bye-election in Panaji, where key issues are mainly local civic issues which include garbage handling, hygiene and other aspects linked to urban planning.