BJP sweeps tribal seats across M.P., Chhattisgarh; BAP opens account

The BJP’s courting of the tribal vote was led by PM Modi and rested on three key planks: representation, stressing the appointment of the 1st-ever tribal President and tribal Cabinet members; maintaining tribal culture to counter the narrative of religious conversion, which played into the third plank of building a nationalistic tribal identity by emphasising the Union government’s efforts to recognise tribal freedom fighters and their struggles. 

December 04, 2023 12:56 am | Updated 12:56 am IST - New Delhi

Across Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, which account for 31% of the country’s tribal population, the Bharatiya Janata Party swept seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes in the Assembly elections. The party, which won just 19 of the 76 ST seats in MP and Chhattisgarh in 2018, managed to bag 44 of them this year - most of the added victories came by converting Congress-voting constituencies. 

In Rajasthan, the BJP managed to add four more ST seats to its tally compared to 2018, even as new entrant Bharat Adivasi Party capitalised on changing ideas of tribal identity with its “alternate politics”, which leaders insisted won it three seats in Rajasthan (Dhariawad, Aspur, and Chorasi) and one in Madhya Pradesh (Sailana). 

Winning tribal hearts

The saffron party’s courting of the tribal vote in these Assembly elections was led by PM Modi and rested on three key planks: representation, stressing the appointment of the 1st-ever tribal President and tribal Cabinet members; maintaining tribal culture to counter the narrative of religious conversion, which played into the third plank of building a nationalistic tribal identity by emphasising the Union government’s efforts to recognise tribal freedom fighters and their struggles. 

And the last straw, was the Prime Minister’s launching of a Rs 24,000 crore plan to take existing schemes to Particularly Vulnerable Tribal groups - in the last days of campaigning. 

While this strategy seems to have paid off in Chhattisgarh (BJP won 17 of 29 ST seats), Madhya Pradesh (BJP won 27 of 47 ST seats) handsomely, and to some extent in Rajasthan, the BJP’s campaign to woo tribal voters based on the same strategy found little to no support in Telangana, where nine of the 12 ST seats were won by Congress and the rest by the BRS.  The BJP’s decision to field Minister of State for Tribal Affairs Renuka Singh Saruta, an Adivasi herself, in Chhattisgarh as part of its representation plank paid off as well, with Ms. Saruta winning the Bharatpur-Sonhat seat by a margin of nearly 5,000 votes, and ending the day as one of the BJP’s CM-hopefuls.

In Chhattisgarh, the Congress on the one hand, alienated tribal voters with its pitch for Other Backward Classes, often focusing its campaign efforts towards this even in ST seats, said Raipur-based social activist Alok Shukla, adding that on the other, this same pitch failed to consolidate OBC voters in the state because of a dominance of the Kurmi community, to which outgoing CM Bhupesh Baghel belongs, further pushing the Sahus - another dominant OBC community - towards the BJP.

“Mr. Baghel kept drumming up the Chhattisgarhiya identity but what about the Surgujiya identity or the Bastariya identity of the Adivasi people?” Mr. Shukla posited. 

Tribal pulse

In both the Surguja and Bastar belts, where a majority of Chhattisgarh’s ST seats lie, the Congress took a beating from the BJP - losing almost all ST seats in Surguja and all but four in Bastar region. In constituencies like Narayanpur (Bastar), Christian tribals were upset with the Congress for not acting on rising attacks against them even as the BJP made it a point to mention religious conversion by missionaries as a campaign plank. The seat went to the BJP’s Kedar Kashyap, who won by over 19,000 votes.

Similarly, the BJP added at least 19 ST seats to its tally in Madhya Pradesh this election, with large swathes of tribal seats in the Mahakaushal and Malwa-Nimar regions  - like Ghoradongri, Bhainsdehi, Mandla, Alirajpur, etc. - shifting from the Congress to the BJP.

The Hinduisation of Adivasis in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, is another factor that contributed to the tribal vote shifting to the BJP, with leaders of the Sangh parivar’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram crediting themselves with on-ground efforts to bring Adivasis into the Hindu fold by making inroads among tribal communities. 

“The Congress’ rhetoric of semantics between ‘Adivasi’ and ‘Vanvasi’ was clearly not enough. You cannot have a leader like Rahul Gandhi promise tribals in Surguja to save their lands from mining interests and then have the same party’s government put a law like PESA on hold,” Mr. Shukla said.   

And despite incidents like a BJP worker urinating on a tribal man in Madhya Pradesh’s Siddhi coming forward in the months preceding the polls, the Congress failed to make atrocities against tribespeople enough of an issue to matter - especially after CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s gesture of washing the victim’s feet in Siddhi and later his government’s decision to bulldoze the accused’s home and charge him under the National Security Act.

But even as the BJP has set the tone for its 2024 strategy to compete for the tribal vote, leaders of the BAP, have argued that their victories were a result of their relatability with tribal youths. BAP Spokesperson Jitendra Kumar said that for these voters, the meaning of being a tribal is fast-moving away from the ideas that leaders of parties like the Congress and BJP have, “and this is what we won on the basis of”. 

Confident in what the victories mean for their strategy, the BAP has decided to remain in the Opposition in Rajasthan - setting its sights on running their campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Even though several other tribal parties had entered the fray in these Assembly elections - like the Hamar Raj Party in Chhattisgarh, Bharat Tribal Party in Rajasthan, and candidates propped up by the Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan (JAYS) in Madhya Pradesh  - the only other tribal party to register a tally was the Gondwana Gantantra Party, which fought in alliance with the Bahujan Samaj Party and won the Pali-Tanakhar seat in Chhattisgarh.

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