The race for the tribal vote is on. To help 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.

According to a 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 said.

Also read: Congress leader Digvijaya Singh fails to vote. He regrets, then explains

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.”


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 organisation that has acted as a bridge between the BJP and the tribes. It runs schools, healthcare and animal welfare centres, 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.

“Many people think that Gujarat is the Sangh’s laboratory. But the truth is it is Madhya Pradesh that has always been critical to the RSS’s consolidation. Of all the states, RSS has concentrated the most on MP during the current election season. They want the BJP to win all 29 seats in the state, so their focus has been on increasing the voter turnout and encouraging people to not opt for NOTA [none of the above],” said a second RSS functionary on condition of anonymity. In 13 seats, NOTA acted as a spoiler for the BJP in the 2018 assembly polls.

MP has the largest number of tribal voters in India, making up almost 21 per cent of the electorate. However, in the last assembly election, the BJP lost both vote share and seat share in the tribal areas of MP as well as Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.

After general elections were announced, the RSS set out to change the perception that the BJP was anti-minority and trying to subsume the tribal identity into the Hindutva fold. It also ran campaigns against the Congress poll promises of loan waivers and minimum income guarantee of ₹72,000 per annum to 20% of the poorest families. “Our volunteers had to counter the anger against poor implementation of the Centre’s policy of giving land rights to forest dwellers and minimum support price for forest produce. We also had to counter the perception that the BJP wants to do away with reservation for STs,” said the first RSS functionary quoted above.


According to Census 2011, over two-thirds of the country’s tribal population work as cultivators or agricultural labourers. Tribal activists allege there are gaps in implementation of central and state schemes. “The only time governments think of the tribal people is when they need them to vote or when they need them to relocate because of some development projects,” said Rohit Prajapati, an environmentalist.

The absence of tribal leaders in the BJP has also upset tribal communities. “There was a time when the BJP had leaders like Dilip Singh Judeo who wielded clout among tribals…tribals complain that while there are a few representatives among them, there are no leaders,” said a VKA functionary based in Bhopal not wishing to be named.

A group of tribal activists, under the banners Tribal Think Tank and Royal Tribal Forum, has released a manifesto demanding that political parties pledge to set up autonomous councils for self-governance in all areas having majority of tribals, forest dwellers, fisherfolk and hill people.

First Published:
May 13, 2019 07:32 IST

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