A first for P Chidambaram at 76 — top ex-minister turns political strategist for Goa Congress

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Panaji: For the past nearly five months, senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram has been visiting Goa every two or three weeks. He has been to all of the coastal state’s 40 constituencies, addressed block-level meetings, started membership enrolment drives, and strategised on picking suitable candidates. 

At some of these meetings, the 76-year-old leader even personally apologised on the party’s behalf for failing to form a government in Goa in 2017, despite emerging as the single-largest party. He assured people that, given a majority this time, the party will form a government “within five minutes”.

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This is Chidambaram, a Rajya Sabha MP well known for his past stints as Union finance minister and home minister, in his new avatar — a political strategist trying to piece together a defection-ridden Goa Congress in time for the 2022 assembly polls. 

Chidambaram’s involvement in the micro-planning, along with All India Congress Committee (AICC) Goa in-charge Dinesh Gundu Rao, has by and large galvanised a beleaguered party whose strength in the legislature plummeted from 17 MLAs in 2017 to just two.

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Observers and Congress members say Chidambaram has spent much time in Goa over the past three-four months, meeting block-level leaders, discussing poll strategy, exhorting them to increase party membership and recruit reliable workers and injecting them with much-needed energy. 

However, three weeks before the polls, the party is also facing rebellion from its ground cadre in a handful of constituencies where, local leaders say, Chidambaram made tall claims about candidate selection, but did not walk the talk.

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Also read: Rodeo rider returns to first love farming: Why Congress’ Pratapsingh Rane won’t fight Goa polls

Union minister, spokesperson, but never poll strategist

Chidambaram, a lawyer by qualification, has worn multiple hats as a Congress leader, but in his nearly four-decade-long career, the party has never earlier given him the responsibility of being an election observer. 

He started his political career as a union leader for MRF. Working his way up in the Congress hierarchy, he has been the Tamil Nadu Youth Congress president and general secretary of the Tamil Nadu Pradesh Congress Committee. 

A first for P Chidambaram at 76 — top ex-minister turns political strategist for Goa Congress
© Provided by The Print

He contested, and won, his first Lok Sabha election from Sivaganga, Tamil Nadu, in 1984, and has been the Union finance minister four times, Union minister of personnel, public grievances and pension on two occasions, and the Union home minister once. He has worked in the Union commerce ministry and also served on a parliamentary committee for home affairs. 

Chidambaram has had a politically colourful career, quitting the Congress in 1996 to join a breakaway faction, the Tamil Manila Congress, leaving this outfit in 2002 to form his own party, the Congress Jananayaga Peravai, and eventually merging it with the main Congress party before the 2004 Lok Sabha polls. 

A senior Congress leader who did not wish to be named said, “Chidambaram has worked as a Congress spokesperson, he has worked on the central manifesto and campaign committees. For state elections, he would be among the faces who would address major press conferences with a stress on the financial and economic issues in the state and Centre. But, the one thing that he has never been before is an election strategist for the Congress.”

PC ‘on the ground for 3-4 months’ 

Multiple leaders from the Goa Congress told ThePrint that Chidambaram and Gundu Rao’s active involvement in this election brought a certain method into the party’s poll preparations in Goa. 

Speaking to ThePrint, former Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat, one of the two Congress MLAs left in the legislature, said, “In the last few months, our workers have worked hard. Chidambaram ji came, had meetings and interactions with people.”

“Since August, every two-three weeks, he (Chidambaram) has spent four to five days at a stretch in Goa. With him, we strengthened block committees, district committees. He met karyakartas (party workers) and tried to find out what their problems were,” Kamat said.

Block-level workers of the Congress who ThePrint spoke to said Chidambaram met block presidents more than once and addressed workers along with Gundu Rao, Kamat and Goa Congress president Girish Chodankar in every block.

They say Chidambaram told them as early as in September-October that election preparations were all in their hands — right from designing brochures and deciding the mode of the campaign to even picking candidates. Chidambaram gave block leaders forms and asked them to enrol active members in the constituency to work for the party. 

He even defined what an active member is, saying it is someone who is willing to work for the party for two hours a day at least two days a week and is willing to participate in door-to-door campaigns, rallies and other activities. 

Himanshu Tivrekar, Goa Congress’ social media in-charge, told ThePrint, “In every constituency, we had 3,000 or 4,000 voters already present. We just had to activate them. A leader like P. Chidambaram going to corner meetings in constituencies gives a sense of how serious the Congress is this time in Goa. Dinesh Gundu Rao also played a major role. Both have been on the ground for the last 3-4 months. Goan politics is different. You need to be in touch with your voters.”

During his regular meetings with block presidents, Chidambaram would pull up those who were not up to the mark in the enrolment of active members, sources said.

“At one point in October, the Calangute block had enrolled only 174 active members. Chidambaram patiently explained that this translated to just five active members a booth, which is woefully inadequate to run an election campaign. He told the block president to boost enrolment,” a Congress leader who did not wish to be named said.

Viriato Fernandes, the Congress’ Dabolim candidate and a social activist who joined the party last month, told ThePrint that Chidambaram made his induction into the party smoother. 

“He had a one-hour-40-minute discussion with me before my induction, where he was very receptive to my views on people’s issues in Goa. He put a structure in place in the party. There was no block in existence in Dabolim. We built it from scratch. All the old Congress supporters were tracked down and brought back.” 

Also read: ‘We’ll not switch sides’: Congress could take Goa ‘anti-defection oath’ to Manipur too

Promise on candidates & why some blocks are upset

On candidate selection, sources said, Chidambaram assured block workers that the decision would be from the bottom, not imposed from the top. Party sources say he told workers to nominate two or three names from every constituency, and promised them that the party leadership would choose from among the list they gave. 

He also lay down hard criteria for picking candidates — loyalty to the party, integrity, acceptability to workers and winnability in the electorate, in that order of priority. 

However, everything didn’t go according to plan in some places. 

Members of the Calangute block committee all resigned earlier this month, saying the senior Congress leader went back on his promise for candidate selection. The members were miffed with the Congress after the party admitted Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) defector Michael Lobo and gave him the candidature from Calangute.

There are quite a few constituencies like Calangute where block members are unhappy with the Congress’ choice of candidates. 

Ularico Rodrigues, former block president of Vasco, said the Congress overlooked him for a nomination. 

“Chidambaram badly managed everything. He let certain people in the party influence decisions. Chidambaram’s first priority for candidates was loyalty to the party. I have been with the party since 1984, and yet the seat was given to someone who has been with the party only for a month,” Rodrigues told ThePrint. 

He also alleged that block workers were forced to include the name of the Vasco candidate in their nominations by certain party leaders. The Congress has nominated two-time BJP MLA Carlos Almeida from the seat. Almeida quit as a BJP legislator last month and joined the Congress

Block leaders in Benaulim and Porvorim, too, are upset over the Congress’ choice of candidates.

Benaulim Congress Committee president Menino Fernandes said last week that Chidambaram “did the opposite of what he promised the block committee” by overlooking all four names proposed by the block and nominating Anthony Dias, a new entrant. 

The Porvorim block committee, too, shot off an angry letter on 14 January to Goa Congress president Chodankar, saying block members have unanimously decided to oppose the candidature of Vikas Prabhudesai as he has no base in the constituency. ThePrint has seen a copy of the letter. 

Senior Congress leader Digambar Kamat, however, said these issues are not as widespread as they are being made out to be. “In a few constituencies, which went to our alliance partner Goa Forward Party, our workers are upset. And in a couple of others we had to see the winnability of the candidate.”

“But, mostly the candidates have come from the block workers. This time, the Congress has been more methodical in poll preparations,” he added. 

(Edited by Saikat Niyogi)

Also read: ‘Not right to shift parties for power’ — why Congress wants to end ‘virus of defection’ in Goa

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