- BJP focusing on Adivasis or tribals, who form 15% of population
- Gujarat has 182 seats; of these, 27 are reserved for tribals
- Traditionally, the tribals have sided with the Congress
Choose the Congress instead, he urges, claiming that the party has made an acceptable offer on how the Patels will get "reservation" - guaranteed government jobs and seats in educational institutions.
While Hardik seeks to dislodge the Patel support for the BJP, Alpesh Thakor, who is 40 and whose Thakor community is a part of the Other Backward Castes or OBCs, has joined the Congress and has promised his caste, which forms about 20% percent of Gujarat's population, will follow him. Jignesh Mevani, who has accumulated considerable street cred as the leader of Dalits, is also part of the Congress' new umbrella arrangement for Gujarat, which on Saturday voted for nearly half its 182 seats.
To counter the effect of the Congress' new political collaborations, the BJP has focused a part of its sprawling campaign on a group that hasn't got much media attention, but could be vital to the result: the Adivasis or tribals, who form 15% of the population.
In 2008, the BJP's tally was reduced to 10 while the Congress' climbed to 16. The score remained unchanged in 2012.
In the run-up to the Gujarat elections, the media's hyper-focus on Hardik Patel and the time spent by the BJP and the Congress leadership in appeasing the Patidar community, which is seen as deciding nearly 70 seats, has ignored some of the biggest agitations by the state's Adivasis in recent times. Staged in towns with a large tribal presence - like Godhra - they gathered in huge numbers to protest three nomad castes being recognized as Scheduled Tribes. These nomad groups were allowed the benefits of affirmative action policies as part of Other Backward Classes or OBCs. The Adivasis are upset about being forced to cede a portion of their 15% quota to "fake Adivasis."
That anger, which had been building up, was incited in August when 68 vacancies for police and government jobs for tribals were filled by 35 "non-tribals" or members of these nomad castes, forcing the government to backtrack. It has temporarily suspended the distribution of tribal certificates to the three nomad castes till after the election, when the matter will be reviewed.
"Tomorrow, some other community will start demanding tribal status and our 15% quota will be further diluted, because we have no voice," a group of visibly agitated students told NDTV in Vadodara. As first-time voters, they said it was impossible for them to get their own Scheduled Tribe certificates without paying bribes.
Of the 27 reserved seats for tribals, 14 have voted last weekend.
BJP President Amit Shah in a blog two months ago said that nearly 15% of the Gujarat budget is spent on schemes for tribals. But on the ground, Adivasis are still largely missing from Gujarat's famous growth story. 35% of Gujarat's Adivasis live below the poverty line and 40% work as labourers, according to a report last year by the union ministry of tribal affairs. These are better stats than for tribals in Odisha and Maharashtra, but Gujarat is far richer than either of those states.
"He addressed a meeting of swayamsevaks and pracharaks of the tribal areas but it had nothing to do with elections," claimed Chandan-bhai, the RSS functionary who oversees the Sangh's operations in Tapi district, which has two reserved seats; the Congress and the BJP hold one each.
"It did motivate us however, to work even more vigorously for the welfare of the tribals through our organisations, such as the Van Bandhu Parishad, which has been holding religious discourses and running the Ekal Vidyalayas (schools) for tribal students...but it is also our duty to educate the people about the importance of their vote in a democracy," Chandan-bhai added.
After the RSS has done the groundwork, it's left to BJP workers to ensure that Adivasis cast their vote.
In the constituency of Bhiloda, the BJP candidate is a police officer who has quit service to run for office. Party activists explain that the constituency has been organized into a careful flow chart that ends with each booth. The day before voting, a BJP worker calls 30 voters to remind them to get to the polling station and support the party.
Less than half of the claims filed by tribals for ownership of their farms have been settled.
"In the last decade, the BJP government has spent 75,813 crores in 43 tribal blocks. But you don't see the result anywhere because the funds are allocated on paper and then diverted to non-tribal areas or to projects which are of no use to the Adivasis," alleges Dr Anil Joshiyara of the Congress who has won the Bhiloda seat in the last three elections.
The Congress' opposition to the planned Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train also takes into account the sentiment of the Adivasis. Tribals have opposed the nearly 17 billion dollar project because the tracks will pass through the Adivasi districts of Navsari and Valsad. Suddenly it has become clear to both parties that the tribal belt could well be the new battleground of Gujarat.
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