In Bhilodi town of tribal dominated Aravalli district, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is upbeat. The reason is the entry of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), which has made the contest triangular in this Congress bastion, and induction of some prominent Congress leaders by the BJP to win over tribal votes, considered the last frontier for its election-winning strategy in Gujarat.
The Congress has been traditionally winning most of the tribal dominated seats in Gujarat, even though it has been out of power for the past 27 years. In the 2017 assembly elections, the Congress had won 15 of the 27 seats reserved for scheduled tribes (ST) and BJP bagged nine. Congress ally in 2017, the Bharatiya Tribal Party, won two seats and one went to an independent candidate. This time, BTP is contesting alone.
The BJP is confident that the Congress may not be able to repeat its 2017 performance. “Several prominent Congress tribal leaders have joined the BJP in the last few years, which has weakened the opposition. This was visible in taluka (tehsil) and zila (district) panchayat elections in 2021, in which we won the majority of the seats. There was special focus on infrastructure development of tribal areas,” said a senior BJP strategist, not willing to be named. To be sure, most times voters prefer the party in power in the state in local body polls.
In the eastern Gujarat district of Aravalli, the BJP won 25 of the 30 taluka seats. In central Gujarat’s Dahod district, the ruling party bagged 32 of the 38 taluka seats. Local BJP leaders said this was the best performance in the rural local body polls in the two tribal districts in the past 20 years.
Vinaben Katariya, one of the winners in the taluka polls in Aravalli district, attributed the win to the BJP’s strategy of winning over senior Congress leaders and providing dedicated funds for development in tribal areas. “Many senior Congress leaders such as Dalipbhai Katariya joined the BJP in the last two years. For the first time, we convinced tribals that the money was being used for their welfare,” she said.
Khamba Manat, another BJP winner in Aravalli, said they presented evidence on how the Congress leaders indulged in corruption, leading to misuse of money meant for tribals. “We produced documents to show that the BJP government has spent over ₹500 crore in Aravalli for tribal welfare,” he said.
Aravalli district Congress leader, Subas Sativar, refuted the BJP’s claims and said the ruling party failed to deliver on its promise to implement the Forest Rights Act and have closed several government schools in tribal areas. “The claims of development by the BJP are lies. They have failed to provide jobs to tribal youth and migration of tribal youth for work within Gujarat and Maharashtra is still very high,” he said.
In the last Gujarat village on the border of Rajasthan, Palla, in Bhiloda assembly constituency, Umeshbhai Ninama is more enthusiastic about the Aam Aadmi Party, which is contesting from the tribal dominated seat for the first time, than the Congress. “There is lot of traction for the AAP in the tribal constituencies this time because of their promise of free electricity and improving government schools,” he said, while leaving Punjab chief minister and AAP leader Bhagwant Mann’s road show in Bhiloda Town on December 2.
About 4km away, in Dhumsura, another Dungri-Garasia tribal dominated village, Anilbhai Pandu blamed the Congress for the lack of development. “The Mehsoo Dam is just 4km from here and it was built by the Congress. But we did not get water from it,” he said. He voted for the Congress in the 2017 election and is supporting the AAP this time.
Harish Trivedi, a local Bhiloda based journalist, believed that the AAP would take away Congress votes and would indirectly benefit the BJP in the tribal dominated seats. “Last time, the BJP candidate, PC Barinda, lost by 7,300 votes and, in 2012, by about 20,000 votes. This time, the AAP will cut into the Congress votes to Barinda’s advantage,” he said.
In Bhil tribal dominated Dahod district, the BJP’s strategy is no different. The party claimed to have spent ₹1,000 crore in the past few years on development work and have provided low-interest loans to tribal youth for self-employment through cooperative banks.
Dahod district has six constituencies — Dahod, Fatepura, Jhalod, Limkheda, Gadbada, Devghadh Baria — of which five are reserved for STs. In 2012 and 2017, the BJP was able to win only one of these seats. The Congress has maintained a vote share of 55% or above in past three elections, while the BJP’s vote share has hovered between 25% and 35%. Locals say AAP candidates are in contest in at least three tribal constituencies of Dahod.
Vikram Bhil, a 26-year-old youth in Jhalod assembly constituency, credited the BJP for getting an auto rickshaw loan from a cooperative bank at an annual interest of 4%. “Because of the loan, I didn’t had to migrate for work to places such as Rajkot and Surat,” he said, saying that he voted for the Congress in the 2017 elections.
BJP candidate Kanhaiyalal Bachubhai Kishori, whose father was four-time Congress MLA from Dahod, said their poll plank is development. “Road infrastructure here is similar to other parts of Gujarat. We are trying to improve water supply though getting piped water in hilly areas is slightly difficult,” he added. Kishore had won the 2021 taluka elections along with 31 other BJP candidates, the outfit’s best performance in rural body polls in 20 years.
Congress candidate from Dahob, Harshadbhai Ninama, said the government misused its machinery to enable win of BJP candidates in taluka elections. “The government has not done any development and there is acute shortage of water. A village of 200 people depends on one pond for water and there is huge migration for work from here. We will win and improve our vote share,” he said.
On November 1, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Mangarh Dham in Rajasthan’s Banswara district — a place revered by tribal people across the country — ahead of Gujarat assembly elections. He paid tribute to 1,500 people of the Bhil tribe massacred by the British Army in the Mangarh Hills on 17 November, 1913, sometimes referred to as the Adivasi Jallianwala.
Modi termed the sacrifice of tribals as “inspiring” and said it was time to acclaim that tribal community kept the “flame of azadi” ablaze. In his long Gujarat campaign trail, Modi has visited three tribal dominated constituencies – Modasa in Aravalli, Valsad and Dahod.
Of the two rallies addressed by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat on November 21, one was in tribal dominated Mahuva in Bhavnagar district. Gandhi alleged that the BJP describes tribals as ‘vanavasis’, whereas the Congress refers them as ‘adivasis’. “For us, the tribals are original inhabitants of India and for the BJP they are just residents of forests,” Gandhi said. On December 2, Congress national president Mallikarjun Kharge visited Bhiloda district and recalled the Congress’s contribution to tribal welfare.
Many tribal constituencies was witnessing a four-cornered contest with the AAP and Bharatiya Tribal Party in fray in addition to traditional rivals, the BJP and the Congress, political expert Ghanshyam Shah said. “More parties in fray could impact the Congress’s vote and benefit the BJP,” shah said. “In the past few years, some prominent local tribal Congress leaders have joined the BJP. It would not be a cakewalk for Congress as it used to be before.”