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How Jhabua, the Adivasi Home, Holds Key to Power in MP and Has Parties Scrambling to Woo Voters

The parties may seem to be going for an overkill, when one considers the fact that there are just three assembly constituencies in Jhabua - the town itself, Thandla and Petlawad.

Suhas Munshi | News18.com

Updated:November 26, 2018, 7:45 PM IST
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How Jhabua, the Adivasi Home, Holds Key to Power in MP and Has Parties Scrambling to Woo Voters
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) and Congress chief Rahul Gandhi.
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Bhopal: If Mandsaur is the farmer capital of Madhya Pradesh then Jhabua is its adivasi equivalent. Over the past few weeks the biggest campaigners in this election season - Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, Jyotiraditya Scindia - have held public rallies here.

The parties may seem to be going for an overkill, when one considers the fact that there are just three assembly constituencies in Jhabua - the town itself, Thandla and Petlawad.

But the reasons become clear when one understands the desperation among both parties to win tribal seats.

Madhya Pradesh has the highest population of tribals in India. Scheduled Tribes (STs) constitute 21% of the state's population. Consequently 47 of the 230 assembly seats in MP are reserved for STs. In terms of caste, the STs make up for the biggest section of MP’s society.

And most of the tribals in the state - 49% - live on its Western border, in Dhar, Ratlam, Khargone, Khandwa, Jhabua, Barwani, Alirajpur region.

“You can call Jhabua the tribal capital if not of Madhya Pradesh then at least of this Malwa region. That’s why in every election biggest rallies aiming the tribals are conducted here. If you move the venue up North, tribals from Dhar or Barwani won’t come. If you move it South tribals from Ratlam and parts of Ujjain will miss out,” says a journalist in Jhabua who has been reporting political affairs here for the last 15 years.

It was in Jhabua, he adds, that the first movement for an independent Bhilistan, back in early ‘80s, demanding an independent nation for the tribals started - From Kushalgarh (Rajasthan) in the North to Dungarpur (Rajasthan) and Godhra (Gujarat) in the West, to Ratlam and Jhalawar (MP) in the East.

Following this several local vigilante forces were also birthed here, like Bhil army and Bhil tigers. These forces imploded in time and their members were appropriated in the BJP and the Congress over the years. The Jai Adivasi Yuva Sangathan (JAYS), which became a huge youth tribal led movement before elections but now seems to have fizzled out, also took roots in this region, and one section of it - headed by Dr Hiralal Alawa - was appropriated by the Congress.

The biggest population of tribals in this region are the Bhils, a huge section of which has supported the BJP, followed by the Gonds, which has leaned in favour of the Congress. However, both parties seemed to have inclined towards Congress’ Kantilal Bhuria, in the Parliamentary bypolls conducted in the Ratlam - Jhabua seat in 2015, just a year after BJP swept the region in Lok Sabha polls.

“Tribals affect the outcome of roughly 40 reserved seats, most of them in this region. For the past few years they have voted in favour of the BJP but the Congress knows that this is ultimately their stronghold. The Congress has an emotional connect with the tribals that the BJP can never have. And that’s because of Indira Gandhi, whom they still remember as ‘Indira Mai’,” says another journalist who works with a national television channel.

Right in the middle of the town sits a statue of Indira Gandhi, freshly garlanded. Jhabua is perhaps one of the very few places where the statue of the former Indian Prime Minister and the Congress icon installed in the yesteryears still remains untouched.

On Nov 21, Jyotiraditya Scindia had a public meeting in Jhabua, where he began by invoking “Indira Mai”. Before him the local Congress candidate, Vikrant Bhuria, also began his address, to the gathering of about 7000 people, with, “ye Indira Mai ki party hai [this is mother Indira Gandhi’s party].” A remarkable fact about the Congress event was that, in the entire four and a half hour-long programme, the crowd cheered the hardest when speakers reiterated their poll promise of “complete loan waiver”. A speaker, claiming to be from Karnataka, was put on stage to testify that the Congress’ same promise in the state was honoured.

So confident did the Congress once feel about Jhabua, having won it consistently since independence, that the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh - Digvijaya Singh - held his nerves as seat-wise results of the 2003 assembly elections started coming in. Only when the results of Jhabua were declared, which the BJP won, did Singh famously quip “now we have lost the elections”.

While the BJP has tried to increase their tribal outreach in the region, the local cadres say not enough is being done to convert the Congress voters. “I have been sitting here since the morning to convince Kalsingh Bhabar [who was also the incumbent MLA] to visit our village. He has only been taking rounds of urban areas and hasn’t stepped into the villages yet.”

Another worker says he and his fellow BJP workers had no idea about the mega Modi public meet that was held the previous day. Infighting between various groups, one of which did not want Bhabar to get the ticket, is one reason attributed to low morale in the ranks.

A former RSS member, who was till recently a ‘Mandal Adhyaksh’ claims that even his own cadre is not interesting in defeating the Congress candidate. “The entire cadre here, after successive wins was deputed to other places. New office bearers who came here had no idea and connect with the locals. They couldn’t speak their native languages and didn’t bother to learn them. Can you imagine not a single Shakha is conducted in Jhabua today,” he says animatedly.

He added that an “anti-conversion” campaign that RSS conducted just before the 2003 elections which reaped huge electoral benefits in the assembly elections then, has all but vanished from the tribal region now. “Many tribals haven’t seen the RSS or the BJP workers for years now. How do you expect to win the election this way.”
| Edited by: Ashutosh Tripathi
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