Since March this year, when the Centre was forced to scrap the Par Tapi Narmada (PTN) river linking project following the tribals’ protests, the ruling BJP has been making intense efforts to woo tribals in Gujarat. A series of five tribal protest meetings in South Gujarat against the PTN, which culminated in March in a Gandhinagar rally, was seen as a major tribal challenge against the BJP.
With the Gujarat Assembly elections barely four months away, all major political parties including the relatively new player, the Arvind Kejriwal-led Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), have intensified their bids to reach out to the tribal communities, which make up nearly 14 per cent of the state’s voters. Tribals are concentrated in 14 eastern districts of Gujarat, along the Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra borders.
Since 2004, when Congress leader and ex-chief minister Amarsinh Chaudhary passed away, no tribal leader has been able to emerge at the state level. Currently, the principal Opposition Congress’s tribal MLA Sukhram Rathwa from central Gujarat is its legislature party leader in the Gujarat Assembly, but he does not have influence beyond his constituency.
The election of Droupadi Murmu as the first tribal President of India is likely to be the BJP’s key poll plank for tribal voters in Gujarat, even as the party has mounted attempts to poach the tribal leaders from the Congress. On August 9, Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel spent the day at Dahod’s Jhalod to commemorate the World Tribal Day.
Dahod, the district that employs the highest number of workers under the MGNREGA, saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi launch the Adijati Mahasammelan on April 22 and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi kick off the Adivasi Adhikar rally on May 10. Both the BJP and the Congress have traditionally launched their poll campaigns in the state’s tribal region from Dahod as it accounts for the largest tribal population. The district also sees a large migration of its labour.
In the 2017 polls to the 182-member state Assembly, the BJP had won eight of the total 27 tribal seats and the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) two with 16 ST seats bagged by the Congress. To make an outreach to tribals, the AAP has joined hands with the BTP. Downplaying the BTP’s influence, the Congress leaders claim that the BTP’s MLAs, Chhotubhai Vasava and his son Mahesh, had been able to win in 2017 due to their seat-sharing pact.
In 2017, the BTP’s alliance with the Congress was largely based on the 78-year-old Vasava’s relationship with Congress stalwart late Ahmed Patel. With the alliance running into rough weather, the tribal party allied with the AIMIM in last year’s local body elections. Its poll campaign in Narmada district revolved around the issues of tribal rights and the notification of an eco-sensitive zone comprising 121 villages. However, this tie-up also did not succeed, with the BTP failing to win a single seat in Narmada district’s Garudeshwar taluka and its tally in Dediapada taluka panchayat, which falls under Mahesh’s constituency, plummeting to two from 12 in 2015.
The BTP stumbled in Bharuch too, losing all the three taluka panchayats of Valia, Jhagadia, and Netrang.
In several Assembly bypolls after 2017, the BJP wrested Dang and Kaprada seats from the Congress whose MLAs, Mangal Gavit (Dang) and Jitu Chaudhari (Kaprada), had defected to the ruling party. The BJP also won Morva Hadaf in the 2021 bypoll after the Independent MLA from the seat, Congress rebel Bhupendra Khant, had been disqualified and had passed away.
The Congress’s Adivasi Adhikar campaign, which seeks to register the tribal families through a mobile app, plans to use data analytics to come up with an election strategy to retain the tribal seats that form a significant chunk of its current tally, 63, in the state Assembly. The party is banking on Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani among others for its tribal outreach. At the May 10 Dahod rally, Mevani and Patidar leader Hardik Patel were present on the stage with Rahul, although Hardik switched to the BJP soon afterwards.
To make deeper inroads in Gujarat’s tribal region, the BJP held celebratory rallies with Murmu’s posters in most tribal districts, including Chhota Udepur, Narmada, Bharuch and Dahod, on July 22, a day after her victory in the Presidential poll. Although the BJP leaders do not admit that these unprecedented rallies were part of its election strategy, Bharuch BJP MP Mansukh Vasava, who also led such a rally in Jhagadia, said, “This is the first time I am seeing such a celebration for a President, but it is because her life is an inspiration for all, especially for tribal women… By now, the tribals know very well that it is in the times of the BJP that the community has progressed… This is the first time that a tribal woman has been sent to the Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is a momentous feat… People are aware that it was the NDA led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee ji that made (Dr APJ) Abdul Kalam the President and now Modiji has elevated Droupadi Murmu after Ramnath Kovind ji.”
Buoyed by its victory in the Punjab Assembly polls earlier this year, the AAP has been looking for expansion in Gujarat in urban areas as well as in the tribal region. Kejriwal has addressed three rallies in tribal districts in recent days, the last being in Chhota Udepur on August 7, where he promised to strictly implement the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) (PESA) Act in the event of the AAP coming to power in the state.
Fourteen of Gujarat’s 27 Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats are in South Gujarat, 10 in Central Gujarat and three in North Gujarat. Following defections from the Congress and its bypoll wins, the BJP’s tally of tribal MLAs is now 11, mostly from South Gujarat, as against the grand old party’s 12.
Among the major tribal issues are unemployment, healthcare, education, displacement due to big ticket projects, water crisis, land acquisition and the PESA implementation.
While the BJP has been showcasing Narmada district’s Kevadia, renamed as Ekta Nagar following the establishment of the Statue of Unity in 2018, as a “model” for tribal development and employment, the Opposition parties have been raking up the issue of land acquisition and “non-implementation” of PESA which gives tribals absolute right on their land. A tribal activist from the district says, “The fact is that right from the time the Sardar Sarovar Dam was commissioned in the 1960s there has been land acquisition… Regardless of the political party in power, poor tribals were displaced. They did not become rich but lost their fertile lands. Thereafter, we have seen the speed at which the natural forest area in Narmada was commercialised for tourism for the Statue of Unity… It has left a deep sense of mistrust among the tribals. They fear losing lands and not being heard. Nobody hears the poor, they know. They don’t have the strength to fight.”
The BJP has not missed any opportunity to appeal to tribal sentiments, even naming universities in their belts after tribal heroes like Birsa Munda and Govind Guru. BTP MLA Chhotubhai, however, asks, “Where are the schools and hospitals? Tribal women don’t have access to free maternity care, their areas don’t have state-of-the-art neonatal facilities. They have to travel 250 kms from remote areas to come to SSG hospital in Vadodara… They take away tribal lands but don’t educate children. Nearly 6,000 government schools in the tribal region have been shut in recent times. The RSS-affiliate Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram started a school in Netrang but that has also been shut. There is not a single English medium government school in the region, so how will the children progress? All that they see is illicit alcohol being sold.”
That the AAP’s entry into the state has rattled the BJP is clear from its reactions to Kejriwal’s every announcement. Since April, Kejriwal has visited Gujarat ten times. Interestingly, just a day ahead of his visit to Chhota Udepur, the Gujarat government issued a fresh circular, announcing that the Rathwa-Koli community would be considered Rathwas of Chhota Udepur, who are a listed ST. However, the tribals in Dahod district have been agitating against Kolis getting ST benefits as Rathwas. BJP MP Mansukh Vasava said that the “non-tribal communities (like Rathwas) from north Gujarat taking benefits of the ST quota could become a bigger issue” than even the PESA. “We have been taking this matter up with the Central government to denotify these communities so that the real tribals of the state can get government jobs and access to education. This agitation is ongoing,” he said.
A senior state BJP leader said that the party would have to fight Congress more than the AAP in the tribal region. “There is no doubt that the tribals have always preferred the Congress party which cannot be written off in the tribal belt. The BJP does have an advantage in some tribal seats that were traditionally Congress bastions but have now come into our party fold after their MLAs resigned and defected… The AAP has no presence on the ground in these areas and its alliance partner, BTP, itself has no presence in any district except a few ST seats in Bharuch and Narmada district,” said the leader.