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The BJP’s tribal outreach

Nov 30, 2023 07:05 PM IST

Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 57 are reserved for ST candidates. The BJP is hopeful that its ongoing outreach will help steer its performance in the 2024 polls

Scheduled Tribe (ST) communities that make up for about 8.6% of the country’s total population as per the 2011 census and can sway electoral outcomes in a clutch of states have been a constituency that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pursued to not only improve its performance in polls but also to consolidate its Hindutva vote bank, which includes a coalition of castes and tribes.

The BJP and the RSS have periodically flagged conversions for changing the demographic in tribal areas, particularly in the NE.(PTI) PREMIUM
The BJP and the RSS have periodically flagged conversions for changing the demographic in tribal areas, particularly in the NE.(PTI)

Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 57 are reserved for ST candidates, spread mostly across 17 states and Union territories. While STs make up for the bulk of the population in the states in the Northeast, they are present in substantial numbers in states such as Chhattisgarh (30.6%); Jharkhand (26.2%); Madhya Pradesh (21.1%); and Gujarat (14.8%) where their impact is not just limited to ST reserved constituencies, but extends to seats that are not reserved for SC or ST candidates as well.

In states, of the total 4,033 assembly seats (excluding Jammu and Kashmir) 545 are reserved for STs, thereby establishing themselves as a constituency with political heft that all parties compete for.

For instance, in MP, where polling was held on November 17, there are 47 of the total 230 seats reserved for tribal communities, but political leaders claim that their influence can impact elections in over 80 seats.

That’s the reason why both the Congress and BJP are vying to win the votes of the tribal communities in the state, making poll promises, ranging from more schemes and financial aid to more autonomy through the implementation of Schedule VI, which allows autonomous administrative divisions with some legislative, judicial, and administrative autonomy within a state.

In the previous election, the Congress bagged 31 of the 47 ST seats, which gave it an edge over the BJP and helped it win the election. The BJP, however, returned to power in 2020 after a section of Congress leaders, led by senior leader and union minister Jyotiraditya Scindia joined the party.

Key to poll outcome

The BJP’s electoral debacle in 2018 in MP, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and later in Jharkhand in 2019 was attributed largely to the STs cold-shouldering the party.

In Chhattisgarh for instance, where the BJP won just 15 of the 90 seats, after being in power for three terms, the party concluded that the delay in handing out land rights to STs apart from the sluggish rollout of schemes was the reason for a sense of alienation developing among the tribes that in turn cost them the election.

This time, for the assembly poll held on November 4 and 17, the party made a head start by identifying weak seats and announcing candidates, including former ministers and lawmakers well in time.

Given the impact of freebies and sops, in elections, the BJP in Chhattisgarh seems to have addressed both economic and ideological issues. On the one hand, it promised Ram Lalla Darshan Yojana, a free pilgrimage to Ayodhya, on the other it promised paddy procurement at 3,100 per quintal, cooking gas cylinders at 500 to poor families, and financial aid to married women and landless agricultural labourers. Reaching out to the STs in particular, the party promised to buy “tendu” leaves at 5,500 per standard bag. The collection of tendu leaves, counted as a minor forest produce, is the mainstay for a sizeable ST population in the state.

Consolidation of Hindu vote bank

While the party’s outreach towards the STs is mounted on the government’s social welfare schemes, some of which are tailored for the tribes, such as the programme to eliminate sickle-cell anaemia; giving land rights to forest dwellers and better remuneration for their produce and products; its ideological mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has its network of foot soldiers working in the tribal areas to prevent conversion.

Through its offshoot, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA), the RSS has been running residential schools, self-help groups for women, and healthcare facilities among the tribals to prevent missionaries from carrying out conversion through inducement or fear. This exercise is crucial to the consolidation of the Hindu vote bank.

The BJP and the RSS have periodically flagged conversions for changing the demographic in tribal areas, particularly in the Northeast. The VKA had begun a campaign to prevent STs who have converted to Islam or Christianity from benefitting from caste-based quotas in education and government jobs.

With the Opposition running campaigns against the BJP government and citing poor economic growth, and lack of jobs and employment opportunities in tribal areas, the government has been nudged to come up with more schemes and incentives. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a new development mission aimed at particularly vulnerable tribal groups or PVTGs to provide amenities, road and telecom connectivity, and improved access to education, health care and nutrition to marginalised tribespeople.

The Pradhan Mantri PVTG Development Mission was launched on the birthday anniversary of tribal icon Birsa Munda and a day celebrated as the Jan Jaatiya Gaurav Divas to honour the contribution of freedom fighters from tribal communities.

The mission, pegged at 24,000 crore, is designed to improve the socio-economic conditions of 2.8 million PVTGs spread across 22,544 villages in 18 states and Union territories. A large number of these PVTGs inhabit inaccessible areas with little or no facilities, including roads, electricity, housing, drinking water, sanitation and livelihood opportunities.

Political empowerment and recognition for icons

The party also claims to give political representation to STs and a seat at the high table. The appointment of Droupadi Murmu, who hails from the Santhal tribe in Odisha as President has been presented as evidence of the BJP walking the talk on the empowerment of the marginalised.

It has also begun a concerted campaign to felicitate and celebrate tribal icons from Rani Gaidinliu, the legendary Naga freedom fighter to a local deity Shambumata in MP’s Jhabua.

This is in acknowledgement of the impact that recognition of tribal icons has on building bridges with the communities. Since it came to power at the centre in 2014, the BJP and the RSS have led celebrations of tribal icons. A senior leader of the RSS explained that it is critical to strengthen outreach among the tribal communities as it helps in establishing “positive reinforcement” about the communities and the role they played in India’s freedom struggle.

The party is hopeful that its ongoing outreach will help steer its performance in the upcoming general election. In 2019, of the total 47 ST reserved seats, the party won 31.

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    Smriti covers an intersection of politics and governance. Having spent over a decade in journalism, she combines old fashioned leg work with modern story telling tools.

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