Despite accounting for 21.1% — 1.53 crore — of the State’s population, Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasis are not a force to reckon with in State politics. There are a total of 46 tribes in MP, three of which are classified as ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups’. Bhils and Gonds form more than 70 per cent of the ST population. Kols, Korkus, Saharias and Baigas make up more than 20 per cent.

Traditionally a Congress votebank, Adivasis have moved to the BJP and smaller parties like the Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) in the last 15 years. “The demands of Adivasis are the same as the rural poor. They additionally want these granted with dignity,” says Shamim Modi of the Samajwadi Jan Parishad, who had lost her deposit from Harda constituency in 2008.

Ms. Modi, an academic at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, has researched factors that affect electoral behaviour of Adivasis in Harda. She says Adivasis living in heterogeneous places like Harda are largely dependent on the dominant caste of the area for their livelihood.

“There is no free choice as most of them are bonded to their landlord to repay loans. The booth-wise break up of election results is a deterrent for them to vote, as they face retribution if they go against the landlord. You do an election survey in these areas, and non-tribal land owners will tell you that they have 100 or 200 votes each. They are referring to their labourers,” she adds. There are serious issues of loss of culture and forest rights plaguing adivasis. As of June this year, almost five lakh registered claims under the Forest Rights Act are pending. The Gondi language, which has about 20 lakh speakers in Central India, is not recognised under the 8th schedule or taught in schools.

In 2003, GGP, the main tribal party in MP and Chhattisgarh, won three seats in Madhya Pradesh and cost the Congress around 20 other seats, by splitting the vote. The party soon broke up under allegations of horse trading. In the 2008 polls, the various factions of the GGP drew a blank. Leaders of the party have come together and have aligned with the Janata Dal (United), which had one MLA in the previous Assembly.

According to Tribal Art and Culture critic Vasant Nirgune, Adivasi society is not comfortable with the concept of contesting for political power and ruling over masses. “They have no faith in politics; their devotion is to their rituals and culture,” he adds.

Political columnist Raajkumar Keswan says: “In 1980, Congress Legislators elected a tribal — Shiv Bhanu Singh Solanki — as CM. But under pressure from (former Congress General Secretary) Sanjay Gandhi, Arjun Singh was made CM. (Former Opposition Leader) Jamuna Devi, who was also in line for CM, had to make way for Digvijaya Singh,” he recounts.

The BJP, he says, was a non-tribal party, until the RSS began to enter the forests to counter Christian missionaries. “Still they have no tribal leader. (Former Union Minister) Faggan Singh Kulhaste was denied the post of State president. Vijay Shah, who was dismissed but brought back to the Shivraj Cabinet, is also restricted to his district of Betul,” adds Mr. Keswani.

“Tribals,” says Shubhranshu Choudhary of mobile radio station CGNet Swara, “are waiting for their BSP. They have not been mobilised like the Dalits in UP or the OBCs and Muslims in Bihar, or even like Adivasis in Jharkhand.” CGNet has now started Adivasi Swara, a mobile phone radio platform which allows callers to listen to and report news in Gondi. “Perhaps mobile phones can unite Gonds,” says Mr. Choudhary.