Congress, AAP eye tribal LS seats in Gujarat; BJP’s grip too strong, say political analysts

PTI, Apr 8, 2024, 9:45 AM IST

Representative image (Source: PTI)

Ahmedabad: The Congress and AAP have tied up in their bid to breach Gujarat, a BJP fortress, through the state’s tribal-dominated seats in the Lok Sabha polls, but the saffron party’s grip over these constituencies is too strong, say political analysts.

Of the state’s 26 seats that will go to polls on May 7, Dahod, Chhota Udaipur, Bardoli and Valsad are reserved for ST (Scheduled Tribes) candidates, while Bharuch has a sizable population of tribals though it is a general seat.

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has made some inroads into the tribal belt, reflected by its victory from Dediapada (ST) assembly segment under the Bharuch Lok Sabha seat in the 2022 state polls.

The Congress, once a powerhouse in Gujarat’s tribal landscape, has renewed its focus on the tribal belt. Last month, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra traversed through areas under these Lok Sabha seats.

Taking a cue from their crushing defeats in the last assembly polls when anti-BJP votes in the tribal belt got split among AAP, Congress and Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP), the Arvind Kejriwal-led outfit and the grand old party have forged a partnership as part of the opposition INDIA bloc for the Lok Sabha polls.

As per their seat-sharing arrangement, the Congress has given Bharuch and Bhavnagar seats to AAP.

Despite Bharuch being a non-reserved seat, BJP as well as the INDIA bloc have nominated tribals as their candidates. Here BJP’s sitting MP Mansukh Vasava will take on AAP’s Dediapada (ST) MLA Chaitar Vasava.

While the opposition bloc is confident of opening its account in the tribal belt, senior political analyst Amit Dholakia believes it won’t be that easy.

“I don’t see any pattern indicative of a shift of tribal voters from BJP to Congress or AAP in this election. Though it seems that Chaitar Vasava would give a tough fight to BJP in Bharuch, chances of his victory are remote because he won from one assembly seat and a Lok Sabha seat comprises several assembly segments,” said Dholakia Dholakia, a professor of political science at Vadodara-based MS University, said central and state schemes like ‘Nal Se Jal’ and housing programmes in rural areas, and work by RSS and its sister outfits in tribal areas have created a pro-BJP atmosphere in this belt.

“Moreover, it’s now difficult for the Congress to reclaim its lost territory because unlike in the past, it currently has no influential tribal leader. It appears that even the party understood that it won’t gain much in the upcoming polls despite efforts,” he said.

Several tribal leaders have switched over from Congress to BJP in past few years. Before the last state polls, veteran tribal leader and 10-time MLA Mohansinh Rathva of Chhota Udaipur and his son Rajendrasinh joined the BJP.

Recently, former Congress MP Naran Rathwa and his son Sangram Rathva shifted to the ruling party, while ex-MLA and BTP national president Mahesh Vasava made a similar switch last month.

Before the BJP clean-swept Gujarat in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, the state’s tribal belt was considered a Congress stronghold.

BJP has renominated its sitting MPs Prabhu Vasava and Jasvantsinh Bhabhor for Bardoli and Dahod seats, respectively.

In Chhota Udaipur, it has replaced sitting MP Gitaben Rathva with Jashubhai Rathwa.

The BJP has replaced sitting MP KC Patel with Dhaval Patel (38), an engineer and the national social media in-charge of its ST Morcha, in Valsad. He will face off with Congress’ Vansda (ST) MLA Anant Patel (40).

Congress has picked cooperative leader Siddharth Chaudhary, son of former MLA Amarsinh Z Chaudhary, for Bardoli.

Former MP Dr Prabha Taviad has got the Congress ticket in Dahod, while ex-MLA Sukhram Rathva is the party nominee in Chhota Udaipur.

Despite the odds and an unfavourable electoral history, Congress is hopeful of making a dent in BJP’s tally this time.

Congress’ Valsad (ST) nominee Anant Patel said, “There are many unresolved issues concerning tribals. If you combine the votes polled by Congress and AAP in the 2022 assembly elections, we were ahead of BJP in 59 seats. Thanks to the alliance this time, we will win the four ST-reserved seats by huge margins.” Patel, who also heads the Gujarat Congress’ Tribal Cell, said the Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra has ushered in enthusiasm among the tribals and Congress workers.

He said tribals are upset over land acquisition in their areas for highway projects, a proposed zinc smelter plant in Tapi district, proposed dams in Dang and Valsad districts, lack of potable water, loss of land due to projects coming up near the Statue of Unity besides poor access to schools and hospitals.

In May 2022, the state scrapped the Par-Tapi-Narmada river-linking project following a tribals’ protest led by Anant Patel. However, except for some pockets in south Gujarat, Patel won’t make much of a difference in the overall results, said Dholakia.

On veteran tribal leader Chhotu Vasava’s return to politics with a new party, Bharat Adivasi Party, Dholakia said its candidates would help the BJP by splitting the tribal votes. His elder son and BTP president Mahesh Vasava joined the BJP last month.

Gujarat BJP spokesperson Yamal Vyas claimed his party’s candidates will win in each of the tribal seats by over 5 lakh votes.

“After the 2019 elections, tribals again voted in our favour in the 2022 assembly polls. Since Congress knows it can’t win on its own, the party is now forced to take AAP’s support… but they are nowhere near BJP’s popularity among tribals,” said Vyas.

He said the state, and the Centre under Prime Minister Narendra Modi have done several developmental works in tribal areas. “That’s why they will support us this time too,” he added.

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