The race for the tribal vote is on. To assist the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) get an edge over the Congress, the Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) has intensified campaigning in the three Lok Sabha seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (ST) in Madhya Pradesh ahead of the last phase of the election on May 19.
Volunteers of the VKA, an affiliate of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), are holding daily meetings and making door-to-door visits to ensure tribal votes do not drift away from the BJP again, as had happened during the 2018 assembly polls, resulting in a loss for the party. The RSS is the ideological fount of the BJP. Of MP’s 29 LS seats, six are reserved for STs. Elections are over in Shahdol, Mandla and Betul, while Ratlam, Dhar, and Khargone will go to the polls on May 19.
As per senior RSS functionary who requested not to be named, the VKA is buoyed by the increase in voter turnout in Shahdol, Mandla, and Betul and sees it as an advantage for the BJP. However, there is no evidence that the claims made by the RSS are correct.
In Shahdol, the overall voter turnout went up to 74.38% from 62.20% in 2014; In Mandla, the overall turnout went up to 77.6% from 66.71% in 2014; In Betul, the overall turnout went up to 79.28% from 66.48% in 2014; “We feel that people have come out in large numbers to vote decisively for the BJP because tribal communities have been beneficiaries of the central government’s schemes such as the hiked minimum support price for forest produce, rights over forest land and better health care,” the functionary quoted above stated.
Asked why tribals did not vote for BJP in 2018 assembly polls, the functionary said it was because of “campaigning that BJP was against reservation.”
RSS IN CHARGE
The RSS was given charge of helming the BJP’s campaign in Madhya Pradesh after the 2018 electoral setback. At key meetings chaired by the RSS and BJP brass, it was decided the Sangh would have a say in ticket distribution, especially in tribal areas where VKA has been working for years. The RSS has also suggested names of contestants to counter the growing influence of tribal leaders such as Hiralal Alawa of the Jai Adivasi Yuva Shakti.
Tribal voters are critical to the BJP’s electoral prospects; it won 27 of the 41 tribal reserved seats it contested in the 2014 general elections with a vote share of 36.4%. The VKA, set up in 1925 by Balasaheb Deshpande at Jashpur in Madhya Pradesh by enrolling six children of the Oraon tribe, is a key organization that has acted as a bridge between the BJP and the tribes. It runs schools, healthcare, and animal welfare centers, self-help groups, and hosts social and religious events to foster ties with the tribal people. After the SC asked the governments of 17 states in February this year to evict an estimated one million tribal and other households living in forests after their claims of the right to live in forests were rejected under the Forest Rights Act, VKA was first off the blocks to petition the central government to take remedial measures.