It is difficult to fit Churchill Alemao, 72, into a single description. Remember the parable of an elephant and the blind men trying to understand the thick-skinned gargantuan animal they had never seen? Alemao is like that elephant from the parable - everyone has their own interpretation of the seasoned politician who was Goa’s chief minister for precisely 19 days in 1990.
Dogged. Generous. Poor man’s messiah. Political party hopper. A man with run-ins with the law (in 1994, he was briefly arrested on smuggling charges and is still embroiled in the infamous Louis Berger bribery case). Football buff (he founded Churchill Brothers 55 years ago). Motor mouth (he once called Goan women ‘decent and delicate’ and those from outside ‘fast’). Playwright (he has written four plays). Music buff (he writes songs). Swimmer. Diver. And a man with political clout.
The interpretations are debatable but the facts aren’t. Starting his work life as a casual labourer for a daily wage of Rs 5, he became a welder, a sailor, and then trawler owner. Alemao became the chief minister in March 1990, barely three months into this first stint as a member of the legislative assembly (MLA) of Goa. That the tenure lasted only 19 days is stuff of another chronicle.
But so much has happened between Alemao eking out a living with small-time jobs and his current candidature as the Trinamool Congress (TMC) candidate for the Benaulim constituency. So much has happened that just keeping track of his political trajectory can addle anyone’s brain. Here's the short version: Alemao founded the United Nationalist Democratic Party in 1983. He joined the Indian National Congress in the late 1980s. He walked away from the Congress to form Save Goa Front in 2007 and then returned to the Congress a year later.
In March 2012, Alemao gathered his family for a poll picnic - Alemao, his daughter Valanka, his nephew, his brother, everyone contested and everyone lost the election. Family became the reason for another political shift - Valanka was denied candidature for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, so Churchill joined the TMC. He did not stay there for long. It would take another hop to the National Congress Party (NCP) before the proverbial prodigal returned to the TMC in December 2021.
Alemao is a five-time MLA, minister, and one-time member of Parliament (MP). He is the state’s first Catholic chief minister and still the only one to become Goa’s chief minister during his first time as MLA. Those 19 days in the CM’s chair were pretty hectic. “In 19 days, I sanctioned four big projects: Tillari water project, Konkan railway, first train between Goa and Delhi, and the Madgaon over bridge,” Churchill said.
In his long decades in the political arena, Alemao has mustered clout but now he is ready to hang his boots. The 2022 election will be his last. “I have joined different parties during my political innings, my strength and victory lies with my supporters and voters. I joined various parties and supported the ruling for a simple reason to bring about development in my constituency,” Alemao had said after rejoining TMC in December 2021.
When I asked about the retirement buzz, Alemao said he wanted to “rest”. “I’ll work for the people but no more elections after this,” Alemao said. “Tell me, if you live in a house and you are not feeling good, will you not move out of that house and start living in another house? That is what I did... Everyone is corrupt. I am not corrupt. Didi (Mamata Banerjee) is not corrupt. That is why I joined TMC,” he added.
TMC is a new entrant into Goa, does it stand a chance? I asked.
“TMC has an alliance with Maharashtravadi Gomantak Party (MGP, Goa’s first ruling party after the end of Portuguese colonial rule in 1961) and we will form the government,” Alemao said.
Alemao's doggedness is the stuff of Goan folklore. “I could have helped the Congress Party form a government in the last election. I broke away five MLAs, just enough numbers to hit 21-mark in the 40-seat assembly. I waited for two weeks with my men in tow,” Alemao said.
He denied all runs-in with the law. “I am innocent. I am not a corrupt man. Ask anyone and he’ll tell who Churchill Alemao is.”
I still remember my first encounter with Churchill Alemao. A few summers ago, the well-heeled had gathered for a cashew-celebration function in a tony hotel. As soon as Alemao walked in as the chief guest, friends, fawners, lackeys clamoured for his attention. Expectedly, the emcee glorified Alemao over the black mic. A few minutes later, Alemao went on the stage, uttered a few words and prompted by the gushing emcee broke into a Konkani song. In his throaty voice, the musical notes wobbled. But I’ll admit, I did admire the man’s courage to care two hoots about the world. He came, he sang, he ignored fake adulation and he went back.
During our conversation, Alemao confirmed: “I do not care about what people think. Ask anyone in the state’s 40 constituencies and they’ll tell you who Churchill Alemao is. I am people’s leader. I am here for the people. I will be always be here for the people.” He once again spoke of himself in the third-person; a man named Churchill Alemao instead of I.
When I reminded Churchill Alemao about that first encounter, he immediately rendered the lyrics of his songs in that throaty voice and generously translated the Konkani words into English. At that moment, his earnest chirpiness was endearing.Also read: Goa Elections | Utpal Parrikar - the political scion trying to emerge from a famous father's shadow