In numbers: Can Draupadi Murmu salvage BJP’s chances in India’s tribal belt?
Much has been discussed about Draupadi Murmu’s candidature, who in all likelihood is set to become India’s first President from the tribal community, powered by the NDA and some unaffiliated parties. BJP president JP Nadda had said the party felt India’s next President should be from the East, be a woman and belong to the vanvasi community – parameters that made Murmu the perfect fit.
It is well known that the BJP lacks a pan-India face to represent tribals, who constitute nearly 9 per cent of the country’s population, with bigger concentration in several politically significant states. The tribal vote is mostly bagged by the Congress and regional parties such as Jharkhand Mukti Morcha in Jharkhand and Bharatiya Tribal Party in Gujarat and Rajasthan. With Murmu in Rashtrapati Bhavan, the BJP will hope to consolidate the Scheduled Tribes vote behind it.
However, behind the proposal may lie a bigger calculation by the BJP. While many political commentators have interpreted the development as the saffron camp’s continued outreach to tribal communities, the elections in Gujarat later this year, and in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh next year, may also have shaped the consensus towards Murmu.
Numbers show the BJP has mostly failed to make the cut in tribal-influenced seats. In the last assembly elections, the Congress had won 86 of the 128 ST-reserved seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh!
In 2017, the Congress had won 15 and BJP nine out of the 27 ST seats in Gujarat. In Rajasthan the following year, the Congress won 13 and BJP eight of the 25 ST seats. MP has 47 ST seats, of which 31 went to the Congress and 16 to the BJP. In Chhattisgarh, the Congress had won 27 of the 29 ST seats, leaving only two for the BJP. There have been murmurs of the BJP looking to replace former CM Raman Singh with a tribal leader as the party’s face in Chhattisgarh.
The BJP’s tribal agony continues in other eastern and southern states as well. The party has just four MLAs in the 97 ST seats spread across Jharkhand (28), Odisha (24), Karnataka (15), Maharashtra (14), Telangana (9) and Andhra Pradesh (7). The BJP was forced to bring back estranged tribal leader Babulal Marandi to its fold in Jharkhand after the 2019 debacle with non-tribal Raghubar Das as the party’s face.
The saffron camp’s foray into tribal communities is being led by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In April, he attended an event in Gujarat’s tribal-dominated Dahod district, where donning a tribal jacket and headgear, he evoked tribal icon Birsa Munda’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle and also mentioned his work for tribal welfare as Gujarat CM.
In the same month, Union Home minister Amit Shah addressed a gathering of tendu patta collectors in Bhopal and handed over cheques to them, besides announcing several schemes for the community. Since last month, Shah and Nadda have addressed tribal events in Rajasthan’s Banswara and Sawai Madhopur, and Jharkhand’s Ranchi in an aggressive bid to woo the community.
In its second term, the Modi government has withdrawn proposals to amend the Indian Forests Act, 1927, and increased budgetary spending on tribal welfare. The RSS, on the other hand, has for long been trying to build a cadre base among tribal communities to blunt the influence of Naxalism and Christian missionaries.