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Congress trying to win back Gujarat tribals. Rahul's attack just the beginning

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 2 May 2017, 18:32 IST

For the Congress, choosing Dediapada in the tribal-dominated Narmada district of Gujarat as the venue for Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi's rally on 1 May is a clever strategy.

The goal is to make electoral gains in the state once again where the party once held supremacy over the tribal electorate.

The rally comes seven months ahead of the scheduled state assembly polls and is being seen as the launch of the Congress campaign in the state that is the home turf of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as the BJP national president Amit Shah.

Holes in Modi’s development narrative

Tribal Gujarat is an area ideal for Modi's opponents to lambast his 'Vibrant Gujarat' development model, and this is exactly what Rahul did.

The area, which is low on social development indices and infrastructural development, is a big question mark when it comes for the BJP to gloat about its Gujarat model of development. Over the years, reports about poor health parameters among tribals, particularly women and children, have emerged time and again.

Interventions in the all important education sectors have also been under the scanner of independent experts who have been challenging the sugar-coated terminology used by the state government to counter their inferences.

With this background, Rahul disputed the BJP government's development claims. He said that the state and the central government are working only for a handful of industrialists. During his stint as chief minister of Gujarat, Rahul said, Modi always only showcased the urban centres and the industrial corridors of the state.

According to Rahul, 10 to 15 people who have been availing the benefits at the cost of others rule Gujarat. In "Vibrant Gujarat", only those close to the establishment get all the benefits at the cost of others. Taking a jibe at Modi's 'Mann ki Baat', he said that Modi has always preferred one-way communication where others listen to him. He questioned Modi's claims on generating two crore jobs every year and said that the BJP governments have failed on this front miserably.

A deciding vote

Tribal Gujarat is of immense importance to the Congress if it wants to do well in the forthcoming polls. The belt runs along the eastern part of the state right from north to south and was once a citadel of the Congress till the BJP got its foot entrenched.

Tribal voters account for no less than 14% of the total electorate in the state and are a deciding factor on their own and in combination with the Other backward Castes in no less than 41 of the 182 assembly seats. Of these, 27 are exclusively reserved for tribals and the Congress at present has 12 seats in its kitty. The tribal population is spread over 14 districts.

Playing the Hindutva card

It was during the tenure of Keshubhai Patel that Sangh Parivar organisations started making an impact in the area by using a multi-pronged strategy. On one side, organisations like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) started playing the Hindu card while attacking Christian missionaries on the issue of conversion.

On the other, smaller organisations that owe allegiance to the RSS, started indulging in social activities like opening schools and providing medical help to the development deprived tribals. 

What this mess triggered was a game of conversion and re-conversion through total assimilation and negation of beliefs. This took its toll on the tribal society and slowly, it stood polarised to the advantage of the forces of Hindutva.

The anti-Muslim pogrom

In central and parts of north Gujarat, the objective was achieved in 2002 when the state was engulfed by an anti-Muslim pogrom.

“In that charged up atmosphere, those primarily targeted were Muslim traders, some of whom were also into money lending. The tribals were out on the roads and some of the most horrifying incidents from places like Dahod, Limkheda and Pandarwada were winessed. Even Godhra, which is often referred to as the Ground Zero for 2002, is a part of the tribal dominated Panchmahals district of the state,” says a senior political observer based in Vadodara.

The result was that the BJP swept central Gujarat in 2002 assembly polls that brought and established Modi as the undisputed poster boy of the party in the state.

“Thereafter, the Congress and the BJP have shared portions of the pie in different elections. But what has happened is that the BJP now has a firm foothold in the tribal belt and the political monopoly of the Congress has become a thing of the past. In the last assembly polls, the BJP swept the tribal belt of south Gujarat while the two parties had mixed fortunes in the tribal areas of the north and central parts,” says the observer. 

“Another thing that has to be noted is that the tribal society has undergone a tremendous social change. One can now see tribals swaying to music at Ganpati pandals during the Ganesh Puja which was not the case earlier.”

Congress makes its overtures

The Congress has been working hard to make inroads into the area again and win back its original support base.

Rahul Gandhi’s rally drew a good response. “But what came as a shock during Rahul's rally was that the senior Congress leader Ahmed Patel had to introduce him to the public as Indira Gandhi's grandson and the son of Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi. It shows how much distance he is yet to cover in politics as he still needs an introduction. But it also reaffirms the notion that the tribals are swayed by personality and charisma. In both these facets, Modi stands way ahead of Rahul,” said an observer based in Ahmedabad.

Another aspect being debated is that the Congress too had failed to bring development to the tribals. This has been played up to the hilt by the BJP over the years. “The BJP has always questioned what the Congress governments in the state did for them despite the state even having a tribal Congress chief minister in Amarsinh Chaudhary,” said the Vadodara based observer.

After getting a foothold in the tribal areas, the BJP has been launching programmes for these areas and marketing them very well. These include the Van Bandhu Kalyan Yojana that has now been replicated at the national level.

Congress, the saviour?

The Congress too has tried to project itself as the saviour of the tribal community. It has been holding rallies and launching the poll campaigns with massive rallies in tribal areas.

In 2007, it was Congress president Sonia Gandhi who had addressed a massive rally in Devgadh Baria where she had played up the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 along with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGA). Before the 2102 assembly polls, it was the then prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh who had addressed a rally at Vansda in Navsari while Sonia had addressed a rally at Mandvi in Surat. 

Earlier, the Congress had held a massive rally at Dandi to mark the 75th year of the historic Dandi March in 2005.

First published: 2 May 2017, 18:03 IST