The symbol of the big cat is a lure for adivasi vote, says the writer.

Until recently, an election campaign was a non-existent phenomenon in the tribal areas of Adilabad. The votes of the Adivasi Raj Gonds and other particularly vulnerable tribes were cast depending on the village patel’s advice or the symbol of the tiger. The tiger is worshipped as the god of the jungle by the Adivasis in this hilly district, north of Telengana. So they voted for the symbol, even if they didn’t know who the candidate was, which party he belonged to or what he stood for.

Though independent candidates who have stood for election on the tiger symbol have not won so far — the number of adivasi votes is not sufficient for a victory — they have given the favourites many sleepless nights. One such independent was the late Thakur Mukteshwar Singh.

A landlord and a perpetual rebel from Kagaznagar town, Mukteshwar Singh was a compulsive election fighter who contested on the tiger symbol in all elections — beginning from that of the sarpanch — in the 1970s and 1980s. “His second wife was a Raj Gond so he had very close relations with tribals,” recalls Thakur Jogender Singh, a former aide. “Mukteshwar Singh used to feel cheated as the Congress denied him a nomination several times. He used to enter the fray on tiger symbol only to cut into the votes of the Congress candidate.” In the 1977 Lok Sabha elections, Mukteshwar Singh first contested as an independent from Adilabad parliamentary constituency. He got 27,652 votes (nine per cent of the 2.91 lakh valid votes). This helped narrow the gap between the Congress winner and his nearest rival.

This continued until the advent of the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) and rising awareness about elections and rights of voters during the stint of T.N. Seshan as Chief Election Commissioner. In the first half of the 1980s, the TDP emerged as an alternative to Congress with its populist scheme of subsidised rice supply. “We were happy with TDP’s subsidised rice scheme and voted for it in 1989,” says 70-year-old Durva Sumitrabai of Bhutai village in Talamadugu mandal. With the awareness of voters’ rights rising sharply in the first half of 1990s, voter turnout jumped from an average of 55 per cent to more than 75 per cent. In the sarpanch election of July 2013, for instance, the Raj Gond voters of Vaipet and Valgonda-Heerapur braved a heavy downpour and walked 12 km to their polling station to record polling at over 80 per cent.