Focus on tribals and minorities: How Congress plans to take on BJP in Gujarat
Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi flagged off his party’s Adivasi Satyagraha at a massive rally in tribal-dominated Dahod, on Tuesday.

Focus on tribals and minorities: How Congress plans to take on BJP in Gujarat

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With the ruling BJP and an expansionist Aam Aadmi Party already busy with their preparations for the assembly election due in Gujarat at the end of this year, the Congress party too has sounded its poll bugle in the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Former Congress president Rahul Gandhi flagged off his party’s Adivasi Satyagraha at a massive rally in tribal-dominated Dahod, on Tuesday (May 10).

Touching base with tribals

Much of what Gandhi said at the rally was a regurgitation of his past attacks at the BJP. He repeated his allegations of the Gujarat Model of governance being pro-rich and that over two decades of BJP rule in the western state had ushered in a state-sponsored alienation of tribals from jal, jungle aur zameen (water, forests and land), et al.

The former Congress president also “guaranteed” that his party, should it come to power in the state, will scrap the Par-Tapi-Narmada river inter-linking project. The project envisages transferring ‘surplus’ water from neighbouring Maharashtra to the semi-arid regions of Gujarat’s Saurashtra and Kutch regions for “irrigation, hydropower and water supply benefits”. The project has triggered unrest among tribals living in those areas of Gujarat where dams and other infrastructure for the project are proposed as they fear massive displacement. Realising that the project could cost the BJP dear in the forthcoming assembly polls, the party has put the river inter-linking plan on hold for now.

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It isn’t so much as what Gandhi said at the Dahod rally, but the obvious political symbolism behind the Adivasi Satyagraha that is of significance for the Congress and the state’s electoral politics.

Adivasis or tribals constitute a formidable 15 per cent vote bank in Gujarat. Despite the state not voting in a Congress government since 1995, the adivasis who hold sway on nearly four dozen of Gujarat’s 182 assembly seats, have largely stayed united behind the Grand Old Party. In the 2017 assembly polls, which saw the Congress register its best electoral performance in the state since 1995 with a victory on 77 seats against the BJP’s 99, the Congress had won 15 of the 27 tribal-reserved seats. The Congress had also outperformed the BJP in over a dozen other unreserved seats where tribal voters influence the electoral outcome.

Congress battles defection, new contenders

But this was until 2017. Much has changed for the Congress, in particular, and in Gujarat’s politics over the past five years – perhaps even more so in the last few months alone. For one, over a dozen Congress MLAs have defected to the BJP while several others are said to be unhappy with the listlessness of the organisation and its inability to resolve internal feuds and present a cogent political and electoral strategy to take on the BJP. Next, riding high on its stunning victory in Punjab this March and buoyant over its surprise electoral wins in last year’s municipal polls in Surat where the Congress scored a duck, Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP is eying major gains in the Gujarat assembly polls.

The Congress’s growing inability to present itself as a viable electoral alternative to the BJP – in Gujarat or elsewhere – has forced a perceptible shift in the tribal voter’s electoral allegiance. Several of the Congress’s tribal leaders, including influential three-term MLA Ashwin Kotwal, have defected to the BJP recently.

Compounding the Congress’s trouble in tribal-dominated seats is the pre-poll alliance clinched by Kejriwal last month between AAP and tribal leader Chhotubhai Vasava’s Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) that has pockets of influence across Gujarat’s tribal belt. The alliance, a senior Gujarat Congress leader admits, “may not guarantee many seats for the AAP but has the potential of turning the electoral contest on tribal seats into a three-cornered fight that may derail the Congress’s victory prospects due to a split in the anti-incumbency votes”.

Congress sources say the party’s impressive performance in the 2017 polls was largely because it had “outsourced” its campaign to promising fire-brand caste-leaders such as Jignesh Mevani (a Dalit), Alpesh Thakor (an OBC) and Hardik Patel (a Patidar) while simultaneously working hard to retain its bastions in tribal areas. This strategy had helped the Congress consolidate Dalit, adivasi and backward caste votes while also weaning away a substantial chunk of Patidar votes from the BJP.

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Five years on, while Mevani, who had been elected an MLA as an independent backed by the Congress, has made it known that he will contest the upcoming polls as a Congress nominee, Thakor has quit the party while Patel has made his disappointment with the Gujarat Congress leadership well known.

‘A calibrated campaign in the offing’

The Congress, say sources, is hopeful of pacifying Patel. Gandhi, it is learnt, has held several rounds of discussion with the young Patidar leader who wants to make his electoral debut this December. Patel was also present at the Dahod rally and declared to the media that he is “very much in the Congress” but sources close to him told The Federal that he is “keeping all options open, including joining the BJP” and wants Gandhi to “not dither on the assurance of respect, dignity and a say in party affairs” that has been given to him.

Over the next few months, the Congress, say sources, is likely to launch a “calibrated campaign” that will appeal simultaneously to Adivasis, Dalits, backward castes and Patidars while it is hoping that the state’s Muslim population will “understand the political compulsions that have forced the party to not overtly reach out to them but will support the Congress against the BJP”.

A senior Gujarat Congress MLA said the party wants to tweak its erstwhile KHAM (Kshatriyas, Harijan, Adivasi and Muslim) alliance that had ensured successive wins for the party under the late Madhavsinh Solanki in the 1980s. “The Kshatriyas are now a BJP vote bank and we can’t appeal to the Muslims the way we did till some decades ago because of the risks of polarisation. So, we need to win over the Patidars, who were upset with KHAM and moved to the BJP but are now divided in their allegiance to the BJP, while retaining the Dalit and Adivasi vote,” the MLA said.

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