On 9 February, the archbishop of the Catholic community in Goa issued a statement against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, which appealed to the government to “immediately and unconditionally revoke the CAA and desist from implementing the NRC and NPR.” The Church’s stand seems to have had a deleterious impact on the political fortunes of eight Catholic members of Goa’s legislative assembly who defected from the Congress to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, in July last year. It has led to a perceived fall in support for these MLAs among the Catholics, who make up 26 percent of the state’s population and to the Church butting heads with a government they had previously been on cordial terms with.
Many members of the BJP leadership I spoke to were worried. A senior member of the BJP’s Goa campaigning team, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me that the eight Catholic MLAs who defected in July 2019 are likely to feel the heat the most. Other Catholic MLAs such as Mauvin Godinho, who holds five portfolios including transport and panchayati raj, were elected on the BJP platform and will not be as affected, he opined. He continued, “The new MLAs have expressed to us how difficult it will be to convince their minority voters. It is a fact.” An MLA who did not want to be identified was also deeply concerned about his own electability after the CAA was passed. He said, “My constituency has Muslim voters too, about a thousand of them and I am surely not getting their votes.” He added, “My Catholic voters will move away and only if I manage to help them by other means will they still be with me. And the Congress votes are not coming to me either except the very personal supporters. The only solace is that we have two more years and may manage to recover some ground.” Some MLAs are harried enough to question their continuation in electoral politics. Antonio Fernandes, a BJP MLA from Santa Cruz, is one of the eight Catholic defectors. He told me “I will see the ground reality. Only if I’m sure that I have a good chance of winning the next elections, will I contest. If I don’t see it, I will stay home and will not contest to lose.”
This unease was visible in one of the semi-urban constituencies of central Goa. Amid new construction and the faithful attending mass at the village church situated in its main square, the usual languid pace typical of the region had been replaced by a distinct sense of disquiet. The MLA of the region who won his election on a Congress ticket had left it for the BJP. The reason for his defection as well as that of his seven colleagues is tied closely to the role MLAs often play in community and church activities in Goa. The biggest currency any MLA in Goa has is their ability to provide jobs. Following this, they are valued by the sponsorships they give to village fests, football matches and other assorted donations, for the red-letter days of the social calendar of rural Goa. MLAs, especially of the ruling party, are able to provide the finances because of the perceived access to influence and power. These needs transcend ideology or party affiliations in Goa. An MLA who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, said, “Many of us decided to join the BJP because no work of Congress MLAs was getting done.”
Though the defection has helped the MLA provide jobs and gain access to funding, it has also put him and the seven other Catholic MLAs in an uncomfortable situation due to the church’s impasse over the CAA. On 24 January, the Council for Social Justice and Peace—the social-justice wing of the archdiocese of Goa—called a rally against the act. Following the CSJP’s rally, the archbishop of Goa demanded the revocation of the CAA. The Diocesan Centre for Social Communications—the official communications arm of the archdiocese—issued a statement on 9 February which read, “The very fact that the CAA uses Religion goes against the secular fabric of the country.” The discriminatory nature of the CAA has led to the galvanisation of a chunk of the Catholic community against the CAA, and consequently the BJP, too. The defecting MLA recognized this and told me that his relationship with his constituents has changed.
The tone of this confrontation seems to be getting stronger. What might have political significance in Goa is that the statement purports to be not only on the behalf of the archbishop but the entire Catholic community. This would mean that the Church’s leadership is confident that their position is not different from that of most Catholics. Savio Fernandes, a priest and executive secretary of the CSJP told me, “The process of getting people to question their MLAs is on. But people have made their stand on the CAA and other issues clear.” The CSJP started a process to get voters from the constituencies of the defectors to speak to their MLAs and probe them on their personal views on the CAA and NRC. This is likely to further solidify the tussle. Savio said he was unsure of whether the Church’s stand and the public protests would affect the state’s 2022 legislative elections, though he said “We are sure of a clear stand people have taken on the issue.”