Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Will elections sink Goa’s casinos?


Goa’s casinos are awaiting the results of elections that may be key to their future, as well as to broader efforts to push for further legalization of gambling across India.

Goa and Sikkim are the only two states in the country where gambling is legal. It is also permitted in the coastal regions of Diu and Daman, but they are considered Union Territories, under the rule of the central government, as per India’s federal system.  

Goa held state elections on February 4 and the results are scheduled to be announced on March 11. Whoever ultimately wins, the heat is likely to be on the casinos, which make a major contribution to the local economy, with revenue reportedly of about $300 million. Goa has five casinos located on boats in the Mandovi River, with Deltin’s Deltin Royale being the largest, as well as onshore properties that are only permitted to offer electronic games.

Goa is one of the richest states in India, with its gross state domestic product growing at a compound average growth rate of more than 11 percent since 2004/2005. However, tourism makes up the backbone of the economy, accounting for 12.5 percent. The other key sector -- mining -- was banned half-a-decade ago and is yet to recover despite the ban having been lifted in 2014.

Up until now, state politics have been dominated by the two giants, the rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party and the Indian National Congress. Both have called for the closure of casinos whilst in opposition, but have failed to follow through on their threats once in power.

That status-quo may change with the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) in these elections.

Starting out as an anti-corruption movement, the AAP currently rules the National Capital Region of Delhi and is expected to win the northern state of Punjab, where elections were held on the same date as Goa. The party has fielded candidates in 39 out of 40 seats in Goa, which has a largely urban profile like Delhi with high literacy, and significant internet penetration.

It has fielded Elvin Gomes, an ex-bureaucrat with a reputation for probity, as its CM candidate. Gomes also led a popular state-wide civil society campaign for improving the state’s governance before joining the party.  

The AAP’s main campaign plank is to close the casinos, a radical promise compared to the other two parties’ stance. The ruling BJP had promised to shutter the casinos down but has had a change of heart. The Congress has suggested a partial, and incremental closure, even though it legalized them in the state in the early 90’s.

Speaking to AGB, Dr. Oscar Rebello, AAP’s chief spokesperson in Goa, reiterated that the party planned to fulfill its campaign promise if elected to power.

He accused the casinos of “sullying” Goa’s image, and added they may have been spared had they been “discreet, low-key and better regulated.”

Taking a tough line, he said that there was no way the AAP would enter into any negotiations with casino owners as its supporters and volunteers would not accept any “compromise.” “We have accepted not even a dime from the casinos in donations (for electoral expenses),” he pointed out.

Prakash Kamat, a senior journalist with a leading national daily in Goa, told AGB that the AAP’s allegations about exploitation of women in the casinos matched the perception locals had. According to Prakash, women’s organizations were especially opposed to casinos, suspecting them of allowing prostitution.

“They are also perceived as official fronts for money laundering and shady business deals,” Kamat said.

He added that although the casino jobs for locals were mainly lower category employment, it would still have an impact on employment in the state were they to be closed down. Nevertheless, the AAP’s stance on the subject has been “appreciated,” Kamat said, “especially its decision to not take any money from casinos as donations.”

“The Congress is a divided house and entirely ineffective as an Opposition,” he noted. This is likely to help AAP, he believes. “Even if they do not win too many seats, they could well be an important voice in the Opposition, thus keeping the heat on the casinos,” said Kamat.

Rebello too expressed a similar sentiment. “We will continue to pursue our agenda, regardless of election results” he told AGB.   

According to local opinion polls, one has shown the AAP emerging as the single largest party, but short of majority, while another says it will be the second largest party, with BJP winning. Others rank AAP lower but none of the polls have ruled them out altogether. In Delhi, it proved opinion polls wrong to emerge as the largest party.

AAP’s stance has been taken seriously by concerned stakeholders. The Deltin group, which is a major player in the casino industry in the state, is considering legal options if AAP wins and decides to go ahead with its plan, a company spokesperson told AGB. The other important casino operator Pride Group could not be reached for a comment.

The All India Gaming Federation, a recently launched lobby group backed by Deltin, is also watching the situation closely. Its chairman, Roland Landers told AGB that they would “wait and watch” the outcome of the elections. “While the primary responsibility lies on the operators of the casinos, we will intervene if there is need for representation on their behalf,” Landers said. However, another senior AIGF official told AGB that despite AAP’s stated claims, it “won’t be easy” to close the casinos down, considering their importance, in terms of generating revenues and employment.

The AAP is seen as having nothing to lose by carrying on with its campaign against the casinos, as it is not part of the political establishment like the two other contenders, at least in the public perception. Even if AAP loses, it looks like it will not be easy sailing for Goa’s casinos in near future. And if AAP wins, it will be a different scenario altogether, putting a spanner in the works for casino operators, and AIGF which is pushing to legalize gambling in other states.    

 

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