Amid the election season in the Hindi belt States of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, the air is thick with talk of “Adivasi bhakti” and the various hues of tribal identity/pride as political parties vie with each other for the votes of a community that is otherwise kept at the margins.
For instance, while addressing a rally in Bishrampur in Chhattisgarh on November 7, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he was “born to serve tribals”, and referring to President Droupadi Murmu, he asked whether anyone had thought that a woman from the tribal community would become President.
Modi has repeatedly reached out to tribal people in the run-up to the elections, be it the mention of the tribal freedom fighter Govind Guru of Banswara in Rajasthan in his Mann Ki Baat radio address on October 30, flagging the “very important contribution of tribal communities” in enriching the culture of Chhattisgarh on the State’s foundation day on November 1, or the mention of celebrating Janjatiya Gaurav Divas on November 15 in the memory of the tribal icon Birsa Munda.
Speaking at an election rally in Seoni in Madhya Pradesh’s Mahakaushal region on November 5, Modi reminded voters that a separate Ministry for Tribal Affairs was set up during the tenure of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and he attacked the Congress for seeking votes from tribal people after ignoring them for five decades.
In sync with the BJP’s strategy of linking communities with Hindu icons, Modi hailed Adivasis as those who took care of Ram, adding that every BJP leader is a “bhakt” of the tribal people.
A day earlier, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, while speaking at a rally in the Bastar region of Chhattisgarh, had promised to eliminate the practice of using the term “vanvasi” to refer to forest dwellers and condemned RSS and BJP leaders for using it. The RSS-backed Akhil Bhartiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, founded in 1952, has helped spread Hindutva’s appeal in the tribal regions, something the BJP has used to expand its support base and reap electoral dividends.
In this keenly fought round of Assembly elections in five States, where a narrow vote margin can be the difference between victory and defeat, the Congress and the BJP are going out of their way to woo the tribal constituency.
In the 2019 Lok Sabha election, the BJP won 31 of the 47 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) and it is hoping to repeat that success, particularly in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan.
These three States account for nearly 31 per cent of the country’s STs, who constitute 8.6 per cent of the total population. In Chhattisgarh, STs account for 30.6 per cent of the total population, in Madhya Pradesh they are 21.1 per cent, and in Rajasthan 13.5 per cent.
The main tribal communities of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh are Pahadi Maria, Muria, Dandami, Gond, Baiga, Parja, Bhattra, Agaria, Bhil, Saharia, Korwa, and Halba, while in Rajasthan Bhil, Meena, Kathoria, and Garasia dominate.
No one party has dominated the tribal mind when it comes to elections, although the BJP can claim greater success in the elections of the past two decades. In 2018, however, in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress won 30 of the 47 reserved seats in the 230-member Assembly, and this helped it defeat the ruling BJP in the State. The Congress scored in the 15 districts of the Malwa-Nimar region, bagging 15 of the 22 ST seats, nine more than its 2013 tally. The BJP’s tally was just six, down from 15. One of the reasons for this was a local tribal outfit called Jay Adivasi Yuva Shakti, which merged with the Congress just before the election.
- As the election fervor grips the Hindi belt states of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh, political leaders play the ‘Adivasi card’ with promises of empowerment, identity recognition, and development.
- From PM Narendra Modi’s tribal-centric rhetoric to Rahul Gandhi’s pledge against derogatory terms, the fight for tribal votes intensifies, underscoring a strategic political tug-of-war.
- Still, the ground reality continues to be difficult for tribal people. In 40 of the 94 ST-dominated districts, where the tribal population is 50 per cent or more, there is still no adequate health infrastructure in the form of PHCs.
In 2013, the BJP won 31 of the 47 reserved seats in the State and the Congress 15, which was almost a repeat of their 2008 performance when the BJP won 29 seats and the Congress 17.
However, in the 2009 general election, the Congress was ahead in 31 of these Assembly segments and the BJP in 16. The fortunes were reversed in 2014, with the BJP ahead in 33 segments and the Congress only in 14, a pattern that was repeated in 2019. Hence, except for the 2018 Assembly election and the 2009 Lok Sabha election, in all elections in the past 20 years the Congress has been trying to best the BJP in the reserved seats.
The BJP has made concerted efforts to solidify the tribal vote, particularly of the Bhils and the Gonds, the major tribal groups. It named two railway stations after Tantya Bhil and the Gond queen Rani Kamalapati, and in April 2022 Home Minister Amit Shah announced the conversion of more than 800 forest villages into revenue villages to augment their development. Just a month later, two tribal people were killed, supposedly by a right-wing group, and the Congress took up the issue aggressively, asking the BJP if it wanted to make Madhya Pradesh tribal-free.
In July 2023, when a video of a BJP worker urinating on a tribal person named Dashmat Rawat in Sidhi went viral, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan washed Rawat’s feet. The same month Modi held a khaat pe charcha (discussion on cot) with tribal people in Shahdol district and talked about how the BJP government had tried to address the issue of sickle cell anaemia among them. He also told them that the BJP does not treat tribal people as just a sarkari aankda (government statistic).
Meanwhile, the Congress is banking on its tribal leader Kantilal Bhuria to bag seats in tribal-dominated areas in the State. A former Union Minister, Bhuria, who hails from the Jhabua region, was made chairman of the Congress Campaign Committee for the State and entrusted with looking after tribal pockets.
In Chhattisgarh, the Congress has dominated Assembly elections in the tribal belt of Bastar, where all 12 sitting MLAs belong to its party. Eleven of the 12 seats in Bastar are reserved for STs; the BJP won Dantewada in 2018 but lost it in a byelection the next year. The Congress has steadily improved its tally in the State’s 29 reserved seats over the past 15 years. In 2018, it won 25 of the 29 reserved seats, while the BJP won three and Ajit Jogi’s Janata Congress Chhattisgarh won one. In 2013, the Congress had won 18 seats and the BJP 11. It was a reversal of sorts from 2008 when BJP won 19 and the Congress 10.
In 2000, when the State was carved out of Madhya Pradesh, 34 seats were reserved for STs. In the first Assembly election in 2003, the BJP won 25 and the Congress nine. Delimitation brought down the number of reserved seats to 29 in 2008. When it comes to Lok Sabha elections, the BJP has held sway, winning 10 out of 11 seats in 2004, 2009, and 2014, and nine seats in 2019. The four reserved Lok Sabha seats of Bastar, Raigarh, Sarguja, and Kanker have the majority of reserved Assembly seats.
This time, however, voting is likely to be divided on communal lines, thanks to the BJP making religious conversion an election issue and even taking out two Parivartan yatras in the tribal belt. The Chhattisgarh Sarva Adivasi Samaj, with its Hamar Raj Party founded by the veteran politician and former Union Minister Arvind Netam, is trying to make the election a multi-cornered battle. Netam, who was with the Congress (as a Minister in the Indira Gandhi and P.V. Narsimha Rao governments) and briefly with the Bahujan Samaj Party, is critical of both the BJP and the Congress for their neglect of tribal interests.
Another new entrant, the Sarva Adi Dal, floated by a group of Christian tribal people disenchanted with the Congress, had a tough time in Bastar. Speaking to Frontline, its president, Arun Panna Lal, said: “We are contesting nine seats this time. We chose to contest because we are losing hope in both the BJP and the Congress. There is no solution in sight to the ongoing atrocities on tribals, which have continued in the five-year rule of the Congress just as they happened during the 15-year rule of the BJP. For the first time, communal riots broke out in Narayanpur this year against Christian tribals.”
He added: “Our fight is to unite tribals and seek what is due to us. Big parties cannot take us for granted. We must get our due in ticket distribution and policymaking. Schemes for tribal welfare should be made with our involvement.”
Meanwhile, a pre-election survey by NDTV-CSDS Lokniti says that 45 per cent of the voters believed that the Bhupesh Baghel government had improved the condition of tribal communities. The Congress has promised to pay Rs.6,000 a bag for tendu leaves, besides a Rs.4,000 annual bonus for each leaf collector. This is in addition to its promise to implement the Sixth Schedule (for establishing autonomous councils) in districts that have a more than 50 per cent tribal population and to enact the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act.
Scenario in Rajasthan
In Rajasthan, of the 200 Assembly seats, 25 are reserved for STs, and in 25 other seats the STs constitute more than 20 per cent of the population. In 2013, the BJP won 18 of the reserved seats and the Congress seven. In 2018, the Congress won 14, the BJP nine, and the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) two (in the Banswara region).
The Vagad and Mewar regions have concentrated tribal pockets in districts like Udaipur, Dungarpur, Banswara, Pratapgarh, Rajsamand, and Chittorgarh, where the Congress won the maximum number of reserved seats in the last election. The BJP is hoping its Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena will deliver the goods in the tribal pockets, while the Congress expects that its tribal outreach, including inducting the tribal leader Raghuveer Meena into the Congress Working Committee, will pay off.
While the BJP has projected the tribal people here as Sanatani Hindus, describing the Meenas as descendants of Vishnu, some Congress leaders kicked up a row by seeking a separate tribal religious code.
Also in the fray this time is the Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP), a breakaway group of the BTP. It hopes to make inroads into the Banswara-Dungarpur region in southern Rajasthan where tribal people constitute more than three-fourths of the population. The BAP and the BTP are contesting around 25 seats.
Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot announced on World Tribal Day in August that the government would provide Rs.100 crore for the development of Mangarh, where tribal people were massacred by the British in 1913. The BJP, on its part, has tried to reach out to the tribal community by popularising the study of Eklavya, a tribal character in the Mahabharata, in model residential schools in the past nine years.
While there is no dearth of political pep talk, the fact remains that the ground reality continues to be difficult for tribal people. According to PRS Legislative Research, a Parliamentary Committee report titled “Assessment of the Working of Tribal Sub-Plan”, submitted in January 2019, pointed out that in 2015-16 and 2016-17, Madhya Pradesh did not allocate funds in proportion to the tribal population.
The committee also flagged a shortfall of 1,240 primary health centres (PHCs), 273 community health centres, and 6,503 subcentres in tribal areas as on March 31, 2017. It noted that in 40 of the 94 ST-dominated districts, where the tribal population is 50 per cent or more, there is still no adequate health infrastructure in the form of PHCs.
The human rights lawyer Bela Bhatia told Frontline: “Despite Adivasis being a majority in the Bastar division, the election campaign did not focus on the core issues that affect them, especially their reduced control over basic resources. It is common sense that any concern for their development cannot at the same time threaten ownership or access to their jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest and land) in the absence of adequate employment opportunities. But the policies of successive governments have been insensitive to this. For example, Adivasis often have no pattas, or land titles, and are unable to make rightful claims when their land gets taken over for building paramilitary camps, to widen roads, or for mining projects.”
Bhatia added: “Had the Forest Rights Act  been implemented, they would be less vulnerable, but its implementation did not become an electoral issue. Likewise, in 2022, the Chhattisgarh Rules for the implementation of PESA were finally made but they severely diluted the Act; this did not become an issue either.”
As always, until their vote becomes crucial, this demography too will not get political attention.