Size Matters: Why Tiny Goa Needs To Be Heard More Often

Published Date: February 19, 2022


There is a need to empower federalism through better inter-state coordination

Just before 10 am on May 30 last year, my phone was set abuzz with mess­ages about an extraordinary “Sta­t­e­ment to the People of Goa” that had just been posted on Twitter by Dr. Palanivel Thiaga Rajan, the brand-new finance minister of Tamil Nadu. Switching screens to look, I fou­nd myself stunned, then chortling aloud with surprise and amusement. I’d never read anyth­ing like it before. Many others went on to agree. A few days later, no less than Shashi Tharoor twe­eted, “I’m delighted to say that in the annals of contemporary Indian political invective, this statement by @ptrmadurai has not been bettered.”

PTR—as he is often referred to by the public—posted his message two days after attending his first-ever meeting of the GST Council. Soon after the gathering, Goa’s notably hapless transport minister Mauvin Godinho—who represen­ted India’s smallest state—tried to grandstand and rally support for himself by alleging he was insulted by his counterpart: “Thiaga Rajan’s case is that since he comes from a big state, he should have a bigger vote. It’s like saying, I am the big brother, you shut up. I take strong offe­nce to the way he conducted himself and expr­e­ssed himself in the GST Council. I want [Tamil Nadu chief minister] Stalin to condemn his minister, and make him apologise.”

In the normal scheme of things, everyone would have ignored Godinho as usual. But PTR responded directly in public, headlining his statement with two declarations: “The hallmark of character is consistency in one’s principles, even at a cost”, and then, rather hilariously, “Empty vessels make the most noise.” He continued, “I generally do not respond to noises emanating from sources that are unworthy of response. But I make this exception for two reasons. First, to counter the baseless lies uttered by Goa’s transport minister, stating that I have insulted the people of Goa and asking my leader & chief minister to condemn my behaviour during a press conference. Second, and more impo­rtant, the whole nation of India should know how such individuals impact the quality and output of the GST Council.”

With charmingly quirky syntax, the debutant minister explained that “the One State = One Vote model of GST is fundamentally unfair” and “The Dravidian movement has long advocated local self-government as the logical extension of our core principle of self-respect and self-determination. As such, we are ALWAYS for state’s rights, and a truly federal governance model that devolves powers from the Union government to the lowest level practical.” PTR clarified that “every statement I made during the entire meeting was entirely consistent with these two principles. Even when the principle resulted in loss of future revenue to Tamil Nadu.”

Now the MLA from Madurai Central switched gears: “The only question arising from your tra­nsport minister’s press conference is whether he is limited in comprehension, in honesty, or both. But I am sure you are aware of his history and have drawn your own conclusions before this incident. If doubt lingers, I add that he was vociferously, and repeatedly, against lowering the GST on Covid-related drugs & vaccines from 5 per cent to 0 per cent on humanitarian grou­nds… I found his statements during the meeting to be highly repetitive, largely vacuous, hectoring, mostly redundant to other’s inputs, supercilious, and devoid of the basic courtesy of ass­uming good faith in the comments of other states’ ministers. He spoke for many times the length of inputs from the hon’ble minister from Uttar Pradesh, a state of over 20 crore citizens, and indeed EVERY other state. I leave to the public to decide whether that serves India, and democracy, well.”

He ended with this unerring coup de grâce: “I have no need to apologise to the people of Goa, for I have done you no harm. In fact, I have strongly advocated for your state government’s rights. I do not require or expect any thanks for that, as my position was dictated by my principles of strengthening state’s rights & federalism with enhanced devolution. But I do offer you my sincere condolences, for having such a person as your minister. I also charge the hon’ble CM of Goa with perpetrating a misdemeanour on Goa’s citizens, and the GST Council, by nominating him to represent your beautiful state. Finally, I sincerely request the BJP, even across the political divide, to impose some minimal quality control on its “MLA acquisition” procedure. If it had done so, Goa, and the nation would be saved a lot of pain.”

Within minutes of being posted, this statem­ent had social media ablaze with approval. The response from Goa was especially overwhe­l­ming, in part because the state was in the midst of suffering the worst throes of “the second wave” of Covid-19 infections, with dozens of unf­ortunate residents succumbing everyday due to flagrant mismanagement of oxygen. Just a couple of days afterwards, having waded in to try and reduce casualties and being thwarted by sheer inertia, the state high court issued an unp­recedented apology, saying, “We are very sorry. We failed collectively. We owe an apology to the people.” Later on, talking about the unmi­tigated disaster, BJP’s own governor Satya Pal Malik (he was eventually transferred to Megha­laya) admitted, “There was corruption in every­thing the Goa government did [regarding the pandemic]. I probed the matter and informed the prime minister about it. Today people are scared to speak the truth in the country.”

In this cesspool of misgovernance, PTR’s statement was a thunderclap of clarity that resonated deeply with Goa’s beleaguered populace. They responded with unanimous appreciation, and, after dozens of requests, I finally wrote an open letter on behalf of the consensus—it was signed from “the people of Goa”—in the century-old O Heraldo newspaper, once the longest-­running Lusophone daily outside Brazil and Portugal. In those storied pages, by channelling sentiments being expressed all around me, and as a kind of homage to the tone and tenor of PTR’s remarkable communiqué, I wrote to him that “You should know it has been greatly dismaying for us, for many years, that Goa’s political cadre machinates almost exclusively in opaque, inexplicable and often indefensible ploys. Thus, you have done an excellent service by describing how your counterpart from India’s smallest state “was vociferously, and rep­eatedly, against lowering the GST on Covid-related drugs and vaccines from 5 per cent to nil, on humanitarian grounds”.”

I also included this caveat: “Please note the implications of Babasaheb Ambedkar’s unw­avering dictum that “rights for minorities should be absolute rights” and “should not be subject to any consideration as to what another party may like to do”. He was speaking for all communities confronted by majoritarianism. Here it would be useful to remember that Goa may be infinitely smaller and less populous than Tamil Nadu, but both are dwarfed by the ocean—vast forces that have embroiled India in its contemporary predicament.” And this plea: “You should know there is nigh-unanimous approval being expressed for your unusual, very welcome comments directed directly to the people of Goa, and the remarkable truth-telling therein. We are convinced the people of your great state are lucky to have you fighting for their interests. We hope that you will keep ours in mind as well.”

This back and forth was joyously received in both parts of the country. I suddenly got 400 new Twitter followers from Tamil Nadu, most of whose bio details included the tell-tale DMK catchphrase, “of Dravidian stock”. Meanwhile in Goa, the response was overwhelming relief. Finally, there was at least one political leader who had an inkling of our plight, and it didn’t really matter that his constituency is over 1,000 km away from our state borders. Looking back now, PTR tells me via email that “I was indeed surprised to hear of how my letter was received in Goa, a place I have long admired but never visited in my life. At first, I chalked it down to the uniquely poor track record of the individual involved (Godinho). But I think there may be a larger rationale.”

That “larger rationale” is, of course, federalism. PTR and my public exchange was condu­cted in the spirit of interstate dialogue, which is so rare now that one respondent on Twitter act­ually called it “a good beginning for our political-economic democracy”. This is because, ever since 1947—but with particularly egregious strong-arm tactics since the Modi-Shah combine rose to what seems like almost unlimited power in New Delhi in 2014—the Centre has continually and relentlessly abrogated the means and channels of national communication for itself, closely mimicking the colonial apparatus that preceded it in power. Alexander Hamilton warned of precisely this in his all-important Federalist Papers, published in 1788: “You must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place, oblige it to control itself.” And as PTR put it succinctly in Outlook Business earlier this month, “We are much less of a federal country than either the capitalist America or the communist China.”

Over email, he elaborated, “Devolution of powers is infinitely greater in both the US and China. In the US, everything from policing to school administration is down to the village/town/city. Sales taxes are set ONLY by states and counties. Even income taxes are set by states and cities. In China, the local authority issues licences for industrial production. Cities run their own police forces. Banking licenses are only issued by the provinces. This devolution of powers ensures three superior outcomes relative to India: greater self-determination; policy and programme customisation to suit local areas’ needs/demands; and greater accountability because local elected representatives can be held to account by voters, much more than national officials.”

PTR says, “I believe many countries get federalism right—China, US, Australia, Switzerland (even in this tiny country, immigration rules are set by the canton). India is the country that gets it absolutely wrong. And the consequences are devastating, when considering the scale of India, and the authoritarianism of the current regime.” This is the crux of his argument: “We do need to create an alternative narrative to the strongman narrative, which is the fast-track to fascism. But the reality is that the authoritarian model is simply incapable of delivering results, because India’s scale and complexity cannot be managed in that manner. So, the danger is that we are on the way to economic ruin and social strife, and the vicious circle of using divisions to distract from gross economic/growth/job failures will accelerate the destruction of value built up over seven decades as a democracy.”

This is an inescapable analysis, with tremendous resonance for South India, as well as all the other states—the entire north-east region comes to mind—which are generally badly served by an imperial Centre’s focus on interests that are very different from theirs. Certa­inly, PTR’s analysis reads like gospel truth in Goa, where grotesque servility to the Modi-Shah combine has become the most basic political currency. This explains why, on the cam­p­aign trail, when chief minister Pramod Sawant was asked which other CM he admired, he knew there was only one correct answer no matter how much it horrified his own voters. Pat it came: Yogi Adityanath. Similarly, there can be no surprise when the perennially bumbling Mauvin Godinho—who was in the Cong­ress before being strong-armed into the BJP by Manohar Parrikar in 2016—spares no bootlicking extreme in ostensible devotion to his “Vish­waguru”—“all important presidents and prime ministers are quoting Modiji. Why? Because he has got that leadership!”

Does he, though? And by repeating it more and more loudly, while genuflecting even more slavishly, will it become so? Can an entire country be successfully bludgeoned into assent? Here, it’s important to acknowledge that Tamil Nadu and PTR’s DMK provide an alternative—and highly persuasive—idea of federation that could easily gain enough traction to be an epo­chal course correction for India. Late last month, chief minister Stalin announced he was launching an All India Federation for Social Justice, made up of “leaders of depressed classes from all the states” on his party’s “Dravidian” model of “everything for everyone”. His unspoken promise: our government works relatively well in Tamil Nadu, and everyone else deserves the same.


PTR told me, “The notion of inter-state cooperation is as old as the country. Wiser men than our current leaders created the Council of States, which has effectively been dismantled. It needs to be revived. The long run of coalition governments at the Union level may have dulled the need for such a forum. Both multi-­state parties (I won’t call them national because NO party really has a nationwide presence), but much more so the BJP than the Congress, may see their own organisations as a substitute for such a council—but they are not. The trend towards cult leadership across all parties is also antithetical to the notion of inter-state dialogue. I think it is crucial for democracy that much more of this happens, frequently and regularly.”

Media: Outlook India