Cong, BJP in a scramble for tribal votes in Chhattisgarh

Parivesh Mishra/ Raipur

A scrimmage has started between the Congress and the BJP for the tribal votes in the northern and the southern thirds of Chhattisgarh. The state goes to poll in November. All the tribals of the state live in these two parts and decide the fate of around 40 seats, which are either reserved for tribals or are influenced decisively by the tribals in this 90 member assembly. With the OBC and the SC dominated seats in the middle third of the state almost equipoised between both the parties, the tribal region becomes crucial for the BJP and the Congress. It can make or mar their prospects of ruling the state.

Both the armies in the battle royal are led by the non-tribals – Raman Singh in case of the BJP and Charan Das Mahant in case of the Congress. Both the parties chose these areas to invite their star performers for the curtain raisers. Raman Singh got a Lal Qila replica erected for Narendra Modi at Ambikapur in the Sarguja area in the north where the Congress had launched its all important but ill-fated Parivartan Yatra . The Congress responded by having the Rahul Gandhi show at Jagdalpur in the Bastar area where LK Adwani had flagged off Raman Singh’s Vikas yatra sometime ago.

 Cong, BJP in a scramble for tribal votes in Chhattisgarh

Tribals sit at a relief camp in Dharbaguda, in the central state of Chhattisgarh. Reuters

Nearly 35 percent of the state’s population is tribal. The figure is tentative as the census has not been effectively carried out in the Naxal controlled areas. Before the creation of the state, the tribals had 25 percent of the total seats reserved in the state assembly of Madhya Pradesh. After the division in 2000, the density of the tribals in Chhattisgarh went up and the number of seats reserved went to over 40 per cent. The 2008 delimitation, however, reduced the number of such seats from 35 to 29. In addition, there are influential tribal individuals and formidable tribal presence in areas beyond the reserved constituencies.

There has been a history in the state of un-reserved seats returning tribal candidates in election after election. In the out-going assembly Devendra Bahadur Singh of Congress from Basna and Renuka Singh of BJP from Premnagar constituency are examples. Tribals like Surendra Bahadur Singh (Sakti) and Kamala Devi Singh (Saria) have a history of winning several elections – all from un-reserved seats. Besides, there are un-reserved constituencies like Manendragarh, Bhatgaon and Khallari where the tribals can decide the result.

The irony with both the parties is that they do not have a tribal leader of stature to take care of this crucial segment for them in a state where the upper castes are widely perceived as steadily taking over the leadership. The influential individuals from amongst the tribals were never allowed to grow to an uncomfortable height. The tribal leadership in the state was bonsai-ed and was never allowed to outgrow the pot. The first and so far the only undisputed tribal Congressman to reach the chair of Chief Minister (of Madhya Pradesh) in 1968 was Raja Naresh Chandra Singh of Sarangarh who could make it only with the support from outside. He was not allowed to last beyond seven days. The party decided to favour a Brahmin to lead and the rest, as they say, is history.

Another tribal from his party – Shiv Bhanu Singh Solanki - was generally believed to have garnered more votes in the confidential intra-party election to the leadership in 1980, but the announcement made at the behest of the central leadership went in favour of Arjun Singh. Arvind Netam, a five-term Lok Sabha member who first became a deputy minister in the Union Cabinet in 1972, could not go much further up and was shown a no-room sign by all the parties in the state when it came to sharing power. Bodh Ram Kanwar from Katghora was perhaps the first tribal post-graduate (M.Sc in Chemistry in 1956) from Central India. Starting 1972, he has won seven assembly elections (six of these from un-reserved seats) and has never lost one. He was never considered fit for leadership by the Congress.

The BJP is no better. Nand Kumar Sai has been elected to the assembly twice and to Parliament five times, besides being the chief of the state unit of the party. Yet he is not even sure of a ticket in the coming election from his party which has bluntly and publicly announced that the CM‘s post, in case of a win, is not going to a tribal.

Chhattisgarh was considered a bastion of Congress once and justifiably so. Tribals had much to do to build this reputation for the region. But the picture started changing around 1990 and by the time the new state was conceived in 2000, the equations changed visibly. For the BJP, if Nand Kumar Sai was there in the North, Bali Ram Kashyap emerged in Bastar in the South. The state of Chhattisgarh came into being with the baggage of the 1998 elections in which the tribal dominated seats were shared almost equally by both the parties for the first time. The first election of 2003 was fought by the Congress under the leadership of Ajit Jogi whose claims of being a tribal were disputed both legally and socially.

The tribal votes slipped away from it (34.86% as against 41.74% of the BJP). In the second election in 2008, the trend reversed in favour of the Congress (37.71%) which was only marginally (0.49%) behind the BJP (38.20%).

For the BJP, the period between 2008 and 2013 has seen the disappearance of Bali Ram Kashyap in the South and a non-tribal Dilip Singh Ju Deo of Jashpur in the North who were the custodians of its tribal vote Banks in their respective areas. The Congress lost Arvind Netam who left the party to head P.A.Sangma’s National People’s Party state unit and Mahendra Karma who was killed in a Naxal ambush. Both the leaders had taken care of the Congress votes in the Bastar region. The BJP has roped in a non-tribal in Kamal Chandra Bhanj Deo from the royal family of Bastar in the South and the Congress has increased its dependency on T.S.Singh Deo, a non-tribal from the royal family of Sarguja in the North. With the ex-royals as their Chiefs of staff, the battle royal for the tribal votes has started between the BJP and the Congress.

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Updated Date: Oct 04, 2013 21:33:43 IST