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In Rajasthan's Mewar, a Tribal Party is Challenging Congress, BJP Using Kanshi Ram's Political Rhetoric

By: Suhas Munshi

Edited By: Sana Fazili


Last Updated: April 27, 2019, 14:08 IST

In Rajasthan's Mewar, a Tribal Party is Challenging Congress, BJP Using Kanshi Ram's Political Rhetoric

Founded by Chhotubhai Vasava, a Gujarati tribal leader, in 2017, the Bhartiya Tribal Party (BTP) has surprised many in Rajasthan.

Banswara: An oft-repeated political maxim here is that the party which sweeps the southern Mewar-Vagad region takes the rest of Rajasthan. This is perhaps why the top brass of both Congress and the BJP, including Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, addressed several rallies here in the recent Assembly elections, and returned again to campaign for the Lok Sabha elections.

Rajasthan’s southernmost Lok Sabha constituency, Banswara-Dungarpur, is a vital seat in the Mewar-Vagad region. In the last fortnight alone it has seen campaigns, apart from those by the Congress president and the Prime Minister, by Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, Deputy Chief Minister Sachin Pilot and former chief Minister Vasundhara Raje. On Friday Congress’s Navjot Singh Sidhu too held a rally here.

The seat reserved for Scheduled Tribes, which comprises 73% of the electorate here, has always elected MPs from the Congress or the BJP. But this time a third political force, a tribal-centric party, is challenging this norm.

Founded by Chhotubhai Vasava, a Gujarati tribal leader, in 2017, the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) has surprised many in this area. Vasava was a JD(U) leader, but defected from the party over its tie-up with the BJP in Bihar in 2017.

The party was floated just a month before Gujarat Assembly elections in 2017 and yet managed to win two seats there. In another maiden venture in Rajasthan, the BTP won two seats in the Banswara-Dungarpur area.

Local newspapers refer to the contest in this Lok Sabha seat as three-cornered. But many journalists, having seen the results of the recent Assembly polls, say they won’t be surprised if the BTP bags this seat.

“We have been trying to figure out how the BTP managed to perform so well,” says independent journalist Rajendra Upadhyay who has worked with nearly all major Hindi publications over the last 25 years.

“This seat has seen the same old faces from the BJP and the Congress over last many years. So a lot of people, especially the younger lot, are restive about it. They feel unhappy over few families running the show here. Also, the BTP has been running an unbelievably aggressive campaign against the Hindu upper castes,” says Upadhyay.

The BTP makes no bones about the fact that they consider the fight here to be a 75% vs 25% fight, similar to how the grand alliance has been trying to shape the contest in Uttar Pradesh. But the difference here is the level of antipathy that the BTP leaders openly exhibit towards the Hindu upper castes.

Brahmano ko yahan se bhaagna padega jaise Kashmir se bhaage the (The Brahmins will have to flee from here just as they did from Kashmir),” says Mahesh Vasava, the BTP founder’s son.

“We are the original inhabitants of this land. Hindu upper castes came from nowhere and colonised us. They took our resources, erased our history and ensured that we were left deprived. They tell us that we are Hindus. No we are not. We are tribals. We have our own Gods,” says Mahesh.

The sharp political rhetoric is straight out of Bahujan Samaj Party’s campaign during its formative years and inspired by classical Marxist theory on political dialectics, a la Tilak, Taraju aur Talwar slogan in Uttar Pradesh in late 1980s, or Lalu’s Bhura Bal Saaf Karo refrain to mobilise Dalits and backwards in Bihar.

In most of the rallies, the BTP has been reiterating that the current BJP leadership is going to rewrite the constitution. A common concern among the tribal communities across the central Indian belt is that their reservation and constitutional provisions are under severe threat. The ruling party’s commitment to repeal Article 370 and 35A in J&K, says Mahesh, is a clear indication of this.

“They’re repealing these articles there to test waters. Once they’re successful there, the BJP will change all the protections given to us in these areas also. We won’t allow that,” he adds.

Soon after the BTP won two Assembly polls here, the party decided to expand its support base and include Dalits and Muslims in their senior ranks as well. Its latest slogan is AADAM (Aadivasi, Dalit, Muslims). The party has sensed disgruntlement in both the communities over their non-representation.

A Muslim local in Banswara who did not wish to be quoted said, “The BTP will do well because the Congress has been taking us for granted. Their leaders never come to our houses in times of celebration or mourning. We see them only during elections, because maybe they feel that Muslim vote can’t go elsewhere.”

While this may not be the general mood among Muslims in this Lok Sabha constituency, what is also undeniable is that the BTP is attracting a lot of Muslims to its party, and given that there are nearly 1.5 lakh Muslims here, even a small chunk of support from this community can theoretically see BTP through.

“An interesting thing about this staunchly-tribal party in a tribal dominated seat is that unlike other parties, the BTP is carrying out its campaigns silently from door-to-door. They’re not making noise so you are always at a risk of underestimating their reach,” says Upadhyay.

“After the Assembly elections, the rift between the upper-castes and adivasis was so severe that both feared to go through villages dominated by the other community. There are also reports that the BTP leaders are ‘re-distributing’ public land. They’re going around telling adivasis that all this land belongs to them and are asking them to choose the plot that they want and it will be allotted to them after the BTP comes to power,” Upadhyay says.

One of the major promises of BTP is founding of ‘Bhil Pradesh’, area dominated by the Bhil tribals that is currently divided between Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.

“Soon we will start a full-fledged movement for Bhil Pradesh. The RSS is running the show in these states right now, but we will throw them out and say 20-25 years down the line, have our own state,” says Vasava. The capital of this proposed state will be Mangarh, he adds, where the British had massacred 1,600 tribals.

Vasava has fought from Bharuch and expresses high hopes of winning from there. When asked who between the Congress and the BJP his party’s primary rival was, he says, “The Congress is dushman (enemy) number one.”

Elsewhere in the constituency, the Congress and the BJP are also in the race. Of the 14 times that this constituency has gone to polls, the Congress has won Banswara 12 times, three of which were won for his party by Tarachand Bhagora who is contesting this time too. The BJP has denied ticket to the sitting MP Manshankar Ninama and given ticket to firebrand party leader Kankamal Katara. Katara has been a member of the state cabinet and of Rajya Sabha.