WITH assembly elections due next year, all political parties are trying their level best to consolidate their votebanks. For now, their attention is trained on the tribals, who it is believed tilted the balance in the Congress' favour in the last elections. In fact, the 'third force', the BSP, has announced that it will field a tribal chief ministerial candidate.
Nearly 25 per cent of the country's tribal population resides in Madhya Pradesh and they account for a crucial 23 per cent of the state's total populace. Worryingly for the Congress, this traditional vote base just maybe exploring other political options. During the 1993 assembly elections, the party had talked of a tribal chief minister, though it ultimately installed a thakur, Digvijay Singh. It was seen a 'second' betrayal. (In 1980, at the behest of Sanjay Gandhi, tribal leader Shivbhanu Singh Solanki had to make the way for Arjun Singh as CLP leader despite securing more votes.)
Digvijay has not helped matters by alienating tribal leaders like Arvind Netam (who has joined the BSP), Dilip Singh Bhuria (who has floated his own forum) and Ajit Jogi. Or by sacking a tribal minister, Dayal Singh Tumrachi, on corruption charges, which tribals feel is curious since other equally tainted, 'caste' ministers have retained their portfolios. The implications are not lost on the Congress and a senior minister admits: "We will have to do everything to win back the support of the tribals. In the absence of the wholehearted support of our traditional backers like Muslims and the scheduled castes, our fate hinges on the tribal vote."
On the other hand, on November 5, the BJP elevated Nand Kumar Sai, an MP from Raigarh, to the helm of its Madhya Pradesh unit. The idea of having a tribal for the state unit's top post has been credited to the Congress, which a few months back installed Urmila Singh as MPCC president, with Dalbir Singh as working president. In turn, former Union minister Netam takes credit for these appointments. "It was because of my joining the BSP that the two parties had to bring in tribal leaders," he says. "But merely installing these mascots cannot deceive the new generation of tribals who understand this dirty game."
Fielding tribal leaders aside, the Congress has launched a campaign to restore adivasi lands back to them and new development plans for Bastar have been announced. Money lending, through a legislation passed in the recently concluded assembly session, has been banned in the tribal areas—a long-standing demand.
That's not all of it. To preempt the BJP's planned overtures towards the tribals, Digvijay has also launched a counter-campaign to discredit the BJP by handing over further investigations into the tendu patta scam, dating back to 1990 when a BJP government was in office, to the CBI. Tendu pattas, leaves used to roll bidis, form a sensitive issue, for it provides a relatively lucrative livelihood to more than 16 lakh tribals. The impression that the BJP deprived them of a bonus and worked overtime to benefit its chosen traders could be a major trumpcard for the Congress.
The BJP has so far concentrated its efforts on Bastar. After raising the issue of a drought in the adivasi district, senior BJP leaders, including leader of the opposition Vikram Verma and Sai, organised a rally in Bastar, demanding that relief work be taken up on a war footing.
But what is causing much worry for the two leading parties is the BSP—which in the last assembly elections helped Gondwana Gantantra Party (GGP) leader Hirasingh Markam win the Tanakhar seat in Bilaspur district, a Congress stronghold. The BSP has also appointed Netam as a general secretary on its national body. Besides organising adivasi melas, the party has constituted tribal cultural groups to create goodwill for the party of the downtrodden.
Indeed, aware of how lethal the combined Harijan power of BSP and tribal power of the GGP could be, Digvijay has been going all out to win over Markam. To no avail, so far. But with elections still some months away, these parties are bound to finetune their tribal policies. On which probably hangs their chance of coming to power.