A key issue in the 2023 assembly election in Madhya Pradesh has been the high-pitched campaign by Congress and the BJP to gain the votes of the tribal population that constitutes 21 per cent of the state, with 48 out of the 230 seats reserved for them. More importantly, over the last few decades, a section of tribals has become politically active in determining electoral outcomes. In his rallies, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has reached out to the tribal population, pointing out that the BJP has appointed Droupadi Murmu as the first tribal woman president, that it was the Adivasis who took care of Ram in the forest, and announced a Rs 24,000 crore welfare programme on the occasion of the Janjatiya Gaurav Divas, celebrated on November 15, to mark the birth anniversary of Birsa Munda.
The BJP held the Rani Durgavati Gaurav Yatra and named two railway stations after Tantya Bhil and the Gond queen Rani Kamlapati. Rahul Gandhi, criticising the use of the term “vanvasi” by the RSS, has promised to eliminate this practice. Congress has made three promises to empower tribals: Implementation of the Sixth Schedule in districts having more than 50 per cent tribal population; enactment of the PESA (Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996); and hike in the rate of tendu patta from the existing Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 per bag. It has prominent tribal faces such as Umang Singhar, Bala Bachchan and Kantilal Bhuria, on whom it is depending to win seats in tribal-dominated areas.
The battle between Congress and the BJP for tribal votes began in the 1990s and has intensified in the 2000s. In the immediate post-Independence period, Congress received overwhelming support in all tribal-dominated areas, except in Mahakoshal, where the Jana Sangh was a competitor. A number of developments contributed to the erosion of Congress support: Rise of a small, educated class, particularly among the Gonds and Bhils, unhappy with being denied adequate share in political power. Increase in voting among tribals; by the 2018 assembly election it was 76.39 per cent and over 80 per cent in Harda and Dewas. Rise in political consciousness reflected in the formation of two parties out of the Gondwana movement: The Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) and the Gondwana Mukti Sena in 1991 by Heera Singh Markam and Kausalya Porte respectively.
The 2003 assembly elections marked the beginning of bi-polar contestation for tribal support, with a constant turnover between the two major parties. With waning Congress influence, the BJP succeeded in entering the tribal areas of Gondwana and Bhilistan, which helped it defeat the Congress. The BJP’s success was due to sustained grassroots mobilisation by the Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad since the 1950s and more recently by the RSS, VHP, Vidya Bharati and Seva Bharati in areas of education and health. Smaller parties, particularly the GGP, which obtained 2 seats and almost 11 per cent votes contributed, reducing the Congress vote-share in Gondwana to 28 per cent.
However, in the 2008 assembly elections, with the decline of the GGP, which could not gain a single seat, the Congress made inroads among the Bhils and Gonds, gaining more tribal votes than the BJP. Similarly, in the 2009 parliamentary elections, it gained among the Bhils and to a lesser degree, the Gonds, but the BJP obtained the support of other tribal communities. In recent years, the political strength of the GGP has waned and they do not have a single MLA or MP. Consequently, in the 2013 assembly elections a resurgent BJP was able to win 34 reserved seats, the Congress only 14.
The 2018 election witnessed a tough fight with the tribal factor poised to play a determining role. In the Malwa region, a section of educated Bhils who had made use of tribal development programmes and jobs formed the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS) with a demand for a separate Bheelistan region. With their slogan “ek teer ek kaman, saare adivasi ek saman” (one bow, one arrow, all tribals are equal) they attempted to unite the tribals. Members of JAYS, following negotiations, contested on Congress tickets, influencing results in Barwani, Jhabua, Alirajpur and Dhar districts. Hence, in the 2018 assembly elections, there was a reversal, with Congress obtaining 32 seats and BJP 16, which helped the former defeat the latter in a close fight.
The reasons lay in unhappiness with the Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led BJP government witnessed in demands put forward by tribal leaders prior to the 2018 election: Implementation of Schedule 5 which gives autonomy to tribal areas, creation of jobs in home districts to stop migration, conservation of forest lands, and addition of Gondi and Bheeli languages in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Second, to uphold the Forest Rights Act 2006 and withdrawal of the proposed amendment in the Indian Forests Act 1927. Third, difficulty across tribal districts in accessing government welfare schemes, due to problems in obtaining an Aadhaar card and filling numerous forms. Fourth, a demand by the Barela tribals since 2012 for compensation and rehabilitation following land acquisition for the Kharak dam, which has submerged over 300 villages.
In the 2023 assembly election, the BJP and Congress are locked in a close fight in which tribal votes will once again play a decisive role. The BJP hopes to win back the tribal vote, which it lost to the Congress in 2018. Most of the demands put forward prior to the 2018 election have continued into the 2023 campaign. Tribals complain about not being able to access the Ladli Behna and other new schemes of the BJP government or the PM Awas Yojana.
With tribals unhappy with the incumbent BJP, the Congress is hopeful of increasing its total of 31 reserved seats it won in 2018, which should help it win the election. JAYS is contesting 43 seats in the assembly elections. The BSP and the GGP have formed an alliance with the former contesting in 178 constituencies, the latter in 52. But the alliance is unlikely to impact the outcome as it is felt that the state will witness a direct fight between Congress and the BJP, with other parties gaining hardly any seats.
Despite rising political consciousness, aspirations, anger against mainstream parties and formation of tribal parties, MP does not seem ready for a polity in which tribals will play a larger role. The GGP, squeezed between larger parties, has declined. A new generation which formed the JAYS has not been able to take it forward except in limited areas.
Uttar Pradesh experienced a Dalit upsurge in the 1990s which brought Dalits to power. Similarly in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, tribals dominate politics. In MP mainstream parties will continue to dominate, the tribals forming a “third force” wooed as well as controlled by them.
The writer is former National Fellow, ICSSR, former Rector (Pro-Vice Chancellor) & Professor, Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University