The tribal belt of Gujarat stretches along the eastern boundary of the state, from the end of the Aravalli Range, skirting the Malwa plateau, down to where the Western Ghats begin, near the Maharashtra border.
It accounts for 27 of the state’s 182 assembly seats. Roughly half belong to the Bhil tribe, and a sizeable concentration of the Vasava tribe is located in south Gujarat.
The tribal community is a politically influential one in Gujarat.
The ‘A’ in Congress leader Madhav Singh Solanki’s ‘KHAM’ caste equations stood for ‘Adivasi’. Amarsinh Chaudhary, also of the Congress, is the only tribal leader to have become chief minister of the state, from 1985 to 1989.
This belt had traditionally remained a Congress preserve, until the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) finally started making inroads into it in the 1990s.
This shift is shown in a table below.
Between 1990 and 2007, the BJP began to consolidate its position in the tribal belt. It even trumped the Congress twice, in 1995 and 2002.
But then the delimitation of 2009 halted the BJP’s momentum to hand the advantage back to the Congress.
This trend change is clearly visible in the chart below. The number of tribal seats also went up from 26 to 27.
Indeed, the new delimitation worked such that the BJP got even the 10 tribal seats it did in 2012 (including the politically significant seat of Dediapada in south Gujarat, the bastion of tribal leader Chotu Vasava and his Bharatiya Tribal Party, or BTP, which won two seats in 2017), only because of Narendra Modi’s widespread appeal as chief minister, and for the development BJP governments had brought to the region.
In 2017, the Congress actually gained three of these seats, while Vasava took back Dediapada. The situation in 2022, though, is fairly different.
The Congress’s standing in tribal areas has taken a pounding. Its tacit alliance with Chotu Vasava in the two south Gujarat seats of Dediapada and Jhagadia is in question.
The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is trying to capitalise on this confusion in these two seats, even though an alliance with Vasava failed to materialise. The AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal even referred to his own caste equation for Gujarat: OTP, spanning Other Backward Castes, Tribals, and Patidars.
And all the while, the BJP is aggressively targeting the tribal belt with a vengeance.
Their strategy has three parts.
First, the BJP engineered a spate of defections by tribal leaders from the Congress in 2020. This included the two sitting MLAs from Dangs and Kaprada seats in the south.
Both seats were solid Congress holds (meaning the party won in 2017 and 2012), yet both defectors were re-elected on a BJP ticket. The BJP also won Morva Hadaf seat in central Gujarat, when the sitting independent tribal MLA was disqualified.
Second, the BJP has instigated a fresh wave of tribal defections from the Congress this year. These include the sitting MLAs for Khedbrahma, Jhalod, and Chhota Udepur — all Congress holds. The biggest prize is ten-time Chhota Udepur Congress MLA Mohansinh Rathwa.
In addition, Anil Joshiyara, a veteran Congress tribal MLA who represented Bhiloda, another Congress hold, passed away earlier this year. His son has joined the BJP.
Therefore, as things stand, the Congress’s 2017 tally of 15 tribal seats has reduced to eight at present, with seven joining the BJP. And the BTP is so worried they might lose Dediapada, that the sitting MLA, Chotu Vasava’s son, Mahesh, has shifted to his father’s constituency of Jhagadia.
Third, the BJP’s heavyweights are campaigning strongly in the tribal belt. The Prime Minister has been setting the stage for some months now, with repeated visits to the region, inaugurating development projects, and showcasing the patent economic boom around the Sardar Patel Statue of Unity as an excellent template for sustainable progress in ecologically fragile areas.
Union Home Minister Amit Shah addressed two large rallies in the south Gujarat tribal seats of Nizar and Dediapada on 20 November. He launched a scathing attack on the Congress there, saying that the party has done nothing but exploit tribals for votes.
“Congress says “Kaam bole chhe” (it is work that speaks). It has not been in power since the last 32 years. When the people of Gujarat did not vote it to power for 32 years, it says its work speaks for it. You did nothing other than increasing poverty,” he said.
The reference to 32 years is important, because the BJP too, acknowledges, that its sustained electoral preponderance in Gujarat since 1990 has also been because of its rising popularity in tribal areas — setbacks following the electoral delimitation of 2009 notwithstanding.
This approach adopted by the BJP, ties organically into its strategy for the rest of the state (see here for a detailed analysis).
And it is for these reasons that this writer predicts, that the BJP could register its best ever showing in both the tribal belt, and the state of Gujarat, in the assembly elections early next month.
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