Adivasis emerging as Gujarat’s new kingmakers

It was not without reason that Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first rally after the elections were declared in South Gujarat’s tribal belt where he said that for him “A in ABCD means Adivasi.”

Darshan DesaiUpdated: Friday, November 11, 2022, 10:58 PM IST
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Adivasis emerging as Gujarat’s new kingmakers | (PTI Photo/Arun Sharma)

Senior Adivasi leader and 10-time Congress MLA Mohansinh Rathwa deserting the party to embrace the BJP with less than a month to go for the crucial Gujarat polls is a clear indication that the BJP is aiming at the 27-seat strong tribal belt to offset losses in other parts of the State.

It was not without reason that Prime Minister Narendra Modi held his first rally after the elections were declared in South Gujarat’s tribal belt where he said that for him “A in ABCD means Adivasi.” Earlier, the BJP’s Gaurav Yatra from the tribal regions was kicked off by Home Minister Amit Shah.

Rathwa is the fourth tribal Congress legislator who has ditched his party when it needs them the most in recent times. Ashvin Kotwal from Khedbrahma in North Gujarat, Jitu Chaudhary from Kaprada in South Gujarat and Mangal Gavit from Dangs in South Gujarat have joined the BJP.

While Kotwal and Chaudhary are BJP candidates from their respective constituencies in the December elections, Rathwa’s son Rajendrasinh Rathwa has been fielded from Chhota Udepur in Central Gujarat.

If the reserved Scheduled Tribe seats are the big hope for the Congress party, these constituencies have also become crucial for the BJP, which not only wishes to win Gujarat seventh time in a row but also break Congress’ unbeaten record of 149 out of 182 seats in 1985.

The belt that touches the North, Central and South Gujarat regions is the largest block of 27 ST seats. The Congress and its allies won 18 seats while the BJP could manage only nine in the 2017 elections. 

On its own, the Congress contested 24 seats and won 15, two went to its ally Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) led by veteran leader Chhotubhai Vasava, and an Independent candidate bagged one seat. Besides the reserved seats, there are as many as 13 seats where the Adivasis can turn the tables if the vote is not split.

Now, in an allegedly discreet arrangement with the BJP, Vasava’s party doesn’t have a tie-up with the Congress this time. The BTP can only win two seats by senior Vasava and son Mahesh, but could play spoiler for the Congress in several other seats. The BTP had earlier announced an alliance with the AAP, but it hasn’t worked out.

With its ears firmly to the ground, the BJP had realised the tribal belt’s potential to play the spoiler. While the BJP poached the four tribal leaders, as fate would have it, a strong Adivasi legislator from North Gujarat and former minister Anil Joshiyara and an Independent MLA from Panchmahals died.

The Congress is putting up a strong fight to retain its sway over the tribal belt and since the BJP has not been able to establish a strong base among the Adivasis, it had little option but to get Congress stalwarts in its fold.  

However, it is still not a cakewalk for the BJP. Here is why:

When Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the Par-Tapi-Narmada Riverlinking Project in her budget speech for 2022-23, a huge protest erupted in the South Gujarat tribal regions along the Tapi and Narmada rivers.

Led by Adivasi Congress legislator Anant Patel from Vansda in South Gujarat, the party organised six huge protests in the region. It was for the first time that a Congress protest forced the State Government and the Centre to halt the project. However, the protests continued until the Centre had announced that the project had been scrapped.

Besides this, protests have been simmering in the tribal regions over Hindustan Zinc Vedanta’s proposed smelter plant in South Gujarat, as well as over the tardy implementation of PESA (Panchayats [Extension to Scheduled Areas] Act) and Forest Rights Act.

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