Trib­als Hold Key in MP

Tribal’s votes can change the re­sults if they en­mass de­cide to vote for a par­tic­u­lar party

The Day After - - CONTENTS - By DAnFEs

Ke­sar Singh Vaskela is brows­ing his phone as he waits for the bus that’ll take him to the weekly haat (mar­ket). Vaskela, from the vil­lage Mo­hudi Pada in Jhabua, stud­ied up to class 10 in a lo­cal school, but was forced to drop out and earn a liveli­hood there­after. But a dis­mal lack of op­por­tu­ni­ties meant Vaskela had to look for greener pas­tures. He now lives in Ahmed­abad in the neigh­bour­ing state of Gu­jarat for seven to eight months a year, and works as a ma­son.

Dressed in a blue shirt, which he proudly says he bought in Ahmed­abad just be­fore Di­wali, Vaskela, 24, makes a string of com­plaints against the in­cum­bent BJP dis­pen­sa­tion in Mad­hya Pradesh: No wa­ter, bumpy kutcha roads, poor qual­ity schools, and most im­por­tantly, no means to earn a liveli­hood. How­ever, he adds that he still likes chief min­is­ter Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and that it isn’t the top lead­er­ship but the lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion and lead­ers who en­sure noth­ing reaches tribal vil­lages.

Vaskela is one of the around 1.6 crore tribal peo­ple in the state, but his story is in­dica­tive of the larger mood of the com­mu­nity.


The tribal vote is key to the for­tunes of both the rul­ing BJP and the Congress, as the com­mu­nity ac­counts for 21.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Mad­hya Pradesh has the high­est num­ber of trib­als in the coun­try, and any po­lit­i­cal party keen to stake claim to power needs a strong strat­egy to win them over. As many as 47 seats are re­served for Sched­uled Tribe can­di­dates, in which the BJP did ex­ceed­ingly well in 2013, win­ning around two-thirds.

In Jhabua district, trib­als ac­count for nearly 87 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion. It is of­ten said that the party which wins this district goes on to win the state polls. In fact, for­mer CM and se­nior Congress leader Digvi­jaya Singh had fa­mously de­clared on count­ing day in 2003 – when he was the in­cum­bent chief min­is­ter – that since the Congress was not win­ning in Jhabua, it would lose the elec­tions over­all.

The tribal vote, there­fore, isn’t one ei­ther of the two par­ties is will­ing to leave to chance. Congress pres­i­dent Rahul Gandhi vis­ited Jhabua at the end of last month; Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi too ad­dressed a rally here on 20 Novem­ber. How­ever, 15 years of in­cum­bency and the con­tin­ued back­ward­ness of trib­als com­pared to other com­mu­ni­ties has meant the BJP has a prob­lem on its hands.


The tribal com­mu­nity is well aware of its elec­toral im­por­tance, and this is per­haps why it feels short-changed.

Vaskela’s con­cerns about the lack of de­vel­op­ment of tribal vil­lages aren’t re­stricted to him. Lack of liveli­hood op­por­tu­ni­ties is a com­mon re­frain across Jhabua, which en­sures that nearly 60-70 per­cent of the work­ing pop­u­la­tion mi­grates to Gu­jarat or Ra­jasthan at some point of the year to earn their bread and but­ter.

While most vil­lagers say that the Ujjwala scheme for LPG cylin­ders and the PMAY

have reached them, and that the elec­tric­ity sit­u­a­tion is bet­ter than un­der the Congress regime ear­lier, their liv­ing con­di­tions re­main be­low par.

“Last time I sup­ported BJP, but we need to think now. Noth­ing has reached us,” says Kis­han Jhaniya of Lakh­pura vil­lage. Jhaniya also mi­grates to Jam­na­gar in Gu­jarat to work as a ma­son for most part of the year. He re­turned home for Di­wali and in­tends to stay on un­til a lit­tle af­ter polling day on 28 Novem­ber.

Most trib­als agree that it isn’t CM Chouhan who is at fault, but lo­cal lead­ers and author­i­ties. This means a quandary for the BJP, since the CM is pop­u­lar but the ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t. Not ev­ery­one, how­ever, is as dis­il­lu­sioned.

“While it is true we have no jobs and poor in­fra­struc­ture, we can’t blame the BJP gov­ern­ment. Congress did noth­ing when in power. How can we trust them again? Let us con­tinue with this regime and see what hap­pens,” says Bhan­war Singh Damor of Bawadi, who finds sup­port in sev­eral peo­ple gath­ered around him at the lo­cal mandi.

How­ever, most vot­ers from the tribal ar­eas are re­luc­tant to overtly in­di­cate their po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences. They talk in hushed tones and re­main am­bigu­ous about the elec­tions. This, they ex­plain in pri­vate, is be­cause of the strong hold of sarpanchs (vil­lage heads) with po­lit­i­cal af­fil­i­a­tions, and the fear of an­tag­o­niz­ing them. In this poll, par­ties seemed at­tempt­ing to breach this bar­rier.


For the Congress, the strat­egy was straight­for­ward – at­tack­ing the 15 years of BJP rule. Congress work­ers and lo­cal lead­ers trav­elled across the tribal belt, talk­ing about how the BJP gov­ern­ment has failed on sev­eral counts. ‘Waqt hai badlav ka’ – one of its cam­paign slo­gans – is be­ing widely com­mu­ni­cated.

How­ever, Congress lacked the BJP’s biggest ad­van­tage – an or­ga­ni­za­tion pyra­mid and struc­ture that per­co­lates right down to the last voter, en­abling deep ac­cess. The BJP had a zila ad­hyaksh (district pres­i­dent), fol­lowed by man­dal pres­i­dents in both ru­ral and ur­ban ar­eas. The man­dal pres­i­dents are as­sisted by paalaks and sany­o­jaks – each of whom are re­spon­si­ble for a clus­ter of around 10 booths. The booth prab­hari and sah-prab­hari, in turn, are given a list of around 10-15 peo­ple whom they have to reg­u­larly be in touch with. The panna pra­mukhs – in charge of each page in the vot­ers’ list – also had a big part to play.

This struc­ture, at­trib­uted to party pres­i­dent Amit Shah, proved use­ful else­where, but the party be­lieves it is es­pe­cially ef­fec­tive in tribal re­gions, to reach out to each voter.

The chal­lenge for the BJP was not just to re­tain the tribal vote, but also to en­sure they come out to vote – quite a task given the high level of mi­gra­tion and the ab­sence of many vot­ers on the day of polling. Its wide net­work is be­ing used to en­sure vot­ers reach the polling booth.

The work of the Rashtriya Swayam­se­vak Sangh (RSS), through its af­fil­i­ate – the Van­vasi Kalyan Par­ishad – was seen as a key fac­tor that helped snatch the tribal vote from the Congress, like in other states. The BJP hopes its well-oiled cadre ma­chin­ery to max­i­mize its reach among the trib­als this time too.

The BJP is also tryed to cap­i­tal­ize on Chouhan’s good­will, en­cour­ag­ing the per­cep­tion that lo­cal author­i­ties are at fault for the trib­als’ plight, and that corrections will be made if Chouhan is voted back. As for the pow­er­ful sarpanchs, both par­ties were try­ing to use them as tools to in­flu­ence vot­ers.

Oa­mal Nath and Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia dur­ing poll cam­paign

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