In the 2018 assembly polls, the Congress shocked the BJP by securing 30 of the 47 ST seats, proving that this vote bank has drifted away from the ruling party over some time.
Sandeep Kumar reports.
The Madhya Pradesh government recently celebrated the first Tribal Pride Day (Janjatiya Gourav Diwas) to honour and commemorate Chota Nagpur tribal leader Birsa Munda, who in the late 19th century fought the British, and contractors and landlords who he thought were exploitative.
The underlying idea was to reach out to the state's 15 million tribal population, who account for 21 per cent of the 72 million people in MP.
This vote bank has drifted away from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, over some time, the last assembly polls in 2018 being the evidence of that.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his address charged earlier Congress governments with overlooking issues related to the welfare of tribal people of the state.
In Madhya Pradesh, of the 84 constituencies where tribals are in abundance, the BJP won just 34 in 2018.
In 2013, it had got 59 of them.
Plethora of benefits
Over the past few months, significant BJP leaders, along with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, have been announcing benefits for tribals.
A special scheme called 'Ration aapke dwar' was announced to provide ration under the public distribution system at the homes of tribal families.
Furthermore, Chouhan announced tribals of the state would be given the right to manage community forests, under which they would create a forest and have exclusive rights over various kinds of produce from it such as fruit and wood.
Chouhan also said the state government was formulating an excise policy under which tribal communities will be allowed to make traditional liquor from mahua.
Moreover, the right to sell this 'heritage liquor' will be given to tribals.
Apart from this, many more similar announcements were made, such as withdrawing minor and false cases registered against tribal people and allocating free sand for constructing houses.
Renaming facilities after tribal heroes
As part of the BJP's tribal outreach agenda, Bhopal's Habibganj Station (also the first privately developed railway station in the country) was renamed after the last tribal (Gond) ruler of Bhopal, Rani Kamalapati.
Chouhan also said Patalpani Railway Station would be renamed Tantya Bhil Railway Station, along with a prominent square in Indore that would be named Tantya Bhil Chauraha.
Political analyst Rakesh Dixit said with such moves the party was trying to woo back the tribal vote, which was in its favour till 2013.
But in the 2018 assembly polls, the Congress shocked the BJP by securing 30 seats of the 47 reserved for the Scheduled Tribes.
He said: "The BJP has commenced preparations for the 2023 Assembly polls."
A BJP leader said a few months ago there was speculation that a change of the guard could take place in MP.
"The party changed four chief ministers in quick succession and it was thought that it might be Chouhan's turn next. However, Chouhan saved the day because he remains the most popular leader in the state and his leadership is essential in the upcoming panchayat, urban body and assembly polls of 2023."
Growing awareness: BJP's concern
Tribals have occupied centre space in state politics.
Jay Adiwasi Yuva Shakti Sangthan (JAYAS) strategist and activist Anand Rai said after Chouhan failed them, the BJP was trying to woo them with the help of Modi's image.
He said: "This is the very reason why the party organised the Tribal Pride Day and Modi specially came to announce many schemes for the community. But now tribal youths are aware of their constitutional rights. Madhya Pradesh consists of 89 tribal blocks.
"The Forest Rights Act is yet to be implemented. There are issues of education, health, migration, and employment. In the 2018 Assembly polls, the tribal youth of western MP voted against the BJP and, as a result, the party lost power. The RSS has now pushed brand Modi to win them back but it looks difficult because the community has been facing oppression for decades."
Meanwhile, the Congress is trying to maintain its support for tribal people and organised the Adiwasi Adhikar Yatra recently.
The increasing efforts of both parties have made it clear that the tribal community has the power to influence elections in the state.