Conventional social barriers have been broken to forge an alliance from below
Narendra Modi wearing tribalheadgear at the inauguration of several development projects in Chhattisgarh in the run-up to the Assembly polls (Photo: PTI)
THE MOOD AT the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi on Sunday (December 3) evening was celebratory to the point of ecstatic. From party workers to the party brass, everyone was eager to listen to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address in the wake of BJP’s victory in the Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. In the plethora of topics covered in the speech, the prime minister chose to reiterate the importance of four “castes” for him: the poor, the farmers, the youth, and women. Three days earlier, in an interaction on Viksit Bharat Sankalp Yatra, a programme to spread awareness about government welfare measures, Modi had stated that for him these categories were the four biggest castes.
The framing was interesting. In a denominationally charged environment where distinction, division and reaping of political benefits have been normalised, it was a very different way of imagining Indians. To be sure, there is the politics of garnering benefits here as well, but it is based on imagining a larger aggregate, one that unites Indians of all hues instead of dividing them.
It also stood in stark contrast to the manner in which Congress leader Rahul Gandhi chose to deliver a similar message of “social justice”. In a speech in Kolar in Karnataka in April, Gandhi had coined the slogan, “jitni abadi, utna haq”, or distribution of rights according to population. It was an open call for distribution of welfare measures on the basis of caste, a demand that crystallised into calling for a pan-India caste census and reopening the floodgates of affirmative action once again. Given that Congress went on to win the Assembly election in Karnataka, its general traction in the opposition political space, especially in Bihar, was thought to be the perfect riposte to the Modi juggernaut.
Such was the crescendo for the demand that it was reiterated between April and November—a season of election campaigns and a sort of ‘semi-final’ before 2024—to the point that Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh promised to conduct a caste census in case the party was voted to power in the two states. In Rajasthan, Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot went ahead and ordered a caste census along the lines of the exercise in Bihar.
The manoeuvre backfired. In the very heartland of caste—and no one can deny that the phenomenon is absent in these ‘Hindi heartland’ states—Congress and its divisive message received a drubbing. Inclusive welfare measures championed by BJP and its state and national leaders were not only delivered without any divisiveness, be it on the basis of caste, religion or region, but they also had a firmer political traction among voters, who were allegedly poorly educated and backward in their outlook compared to certain other parts of the country.
While the prime minister’s vivid description was made explicit in recent days, the truth is that non-denominational delivery of basic goods to the poor and the tailoring of welfare measures to the needs of the ‘four castes’ has been the order of the day in the past nine years.
In early November, at a rally in Chhattisgarh, Modi announced the extension of the PM Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana (PMGKAY) for the next five years. The scheme, set to expire by the end of December and rolled out at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, was given multiple extensions over the years and benefited around 81 crore individuals. It was launched at a time of acute distress. The mass migration in the wake of the pandemic had severely dislocated labour markets. At that time it was imperative to extend a helping hand to the large mass of India’s labour. Unless that were to be done, the level of distress would have touched unimaginable levels.
Three years later, the scheme was extended for the next five years. The cost will be a huge ₹11.80 lakh crore over this period. This has led to a series of strongly worded exchanges across the political spectrum. The opposition, especially Congress, has used the extension to claim that it signals the widespread prevalence of distress among the poor. What it did not elaborate was that when the food security plan was envisaged—under the National Food Security Act (NFSA), 2013—this was not the language it was couched in. At that time, the monthly bundle of subsidised foodgrain was described as an “entitlement” in the fancy language of development economists associated with the plan. But politically, it remains unclear why these subsidised grains were “entitlements” before 2014 and are now considered a “distress package”. Such rhetoric is par for the course in Indian politics.
The reality is more complicated. It is a fact that a significant section of people covered under NFSA and PMGKAY—the two schemes were merged late last year—is in no position to afford these grains in the open market where their prices are much higher. At the same time, the government-run procurement-cum-distribution has its own economic logic that links Modi’s two ‘castes’: the farmers and the poor. What the farmers produce also ends up helping the poor but only if the government’s visible and benevolent hand ensures its continued linkage.
Nowhere is this cross-linking more apparent than Madhya Pradesh where a series of steps taken by the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government since 2005 has ensured a massive increase in agricultural productivity and a commensurate increase in welfare measures. Over time, the Chouhan government ensured that the standard package of inputs—irrigation, fertilisers, and better seeds—were made available to Madhya Pradesh’s farmers just as they were some 50 years ago in the Green Revolution heartland of Punjab and Haryana. But there was a difference. In the northern states, the Centre backed these measures from their design to implementation. That was just the start: over the course of five decades, the Centre’s financial muscle was extended to these states. In Madhya Pradesh, these measures were largely carried out by the state government. But rapid increase in agricultural productivity in the absence of returns to farmers is a recipe for unrest. The Chouhan government took the second step, somewhat later, in 2018-19 when it launched the market difference payment scheme. Under this scheme, farmers sell their output in the open market but the government intervenes if the price falls below the minimum support price (MSP) set by the Centre. Unlike the fiscally ruinous operations in Punjab and Haryana, in Madhya Pradesh the state government has combined the magic of the market with the benevolent hand of the state.
It is against this background that one must look at the recent Assembly elections. Farmers were not a vocal and dissatisfied community unlike in 2018 when for a short period they were affected by adverse terms of trade. When combined with extensive and well-delivered measures for women under the clutch of Ladli Behna schemes that range from direct benefit transfer (DBT) to priority in land allotments to subsidised LPG cylinders, Congress gained no traction with what was a shrill and negative campaign from the party. Congress raised the pitch for a caste census in the hope that it would endear itself to the Other Backward Classes (OBCs)—a segment that it has never managed to bring into its fold fully—but BJP countered it with a far bigger umbrella: women, farmers, the poor, Adivasis, and the youth.
IN HIS SPEECH the prime minister made a special mention of his “Adivasi brothers and sisters” as being integral to India’s growth story. This was something natural for him to say as in all the three Hindi heartland states and Telangana, Adivasis are an integral part of the political landscape. That BJP had the confidence of the original inhabitants of the land was nowhere more obvious than the political outcomes in the Aspirational Districts in these states. These are 112 of India’s most underdeveloped districts. A large number of these districts are home to Adivasi communities. It is not surprising that BJP has done well politically in these districts. The Indian Express reported after the election results were declared that 26 such districts are spread across the four states that went to polls and account for 81 Assembly seats. Of these, BJP won 52, doubling its tally of 23 in 2018, while Congress won only 24, down from 52 in 2018. The most spectacular results of this swing towards BJP were visible in Chhattisgarh.
Wearing a Gond Adivasi headgear, Modi said in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi-dominated Surguja, “I was born to serve you and you have given me work to serve you.” In his speech on November 7, he promised to fulfil Adivasi aspirations, accused Congress of denying them their rights and said his government had increased budgetary allocations fivefold for tribal communities. By the time he ended his speech asking his audience to go back and tell people in their villages “Modi ne johar kaha hai (Modi has greeted you),” the crowd was euphoric.
A week later, he visited Jharkhand’s Ulihatu village, the birthplace of Adivasi icon Birsa Munda, becoming the first prime minister to do so. Modi, who had declared that November 15 will be celebrated as “janjatiya gaurav diwas”, unfurled a ₹24,000 crore project for vulnerable tribal groups, rolling out the PM Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) Development Mission, from Khunti region of Jharkhand. The message evidently resonated across the Jharkhand border to neighbouring Chhattisgarh and farther on in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan which were on the verge of polls.
Adivasis constitute nearly a third of Chhattisgarh’s population while in Madhya Pradesh they are estimated to be around 21 per cent and in Rajasthan nearly 14 per cent. Around 75 tribes in India have been identified as PVTGs, categorised by “pre-agriculture level of technology, stagnant or declining population, extremely low literacy, and subsistence level of economy”. Of the states that went to polls, Madhya Pradesh has the largest population of PVTGs, followed by Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan.
In Surguja’s 14 Scheduled Tribe (ST) seats, Congress has been wiped out. Of the total 29 ST seats in the 90-member Chhattisgarh Assembly, BJP won 17, reversing the 2018 situation when Congress won 25. The Adivasis had turned against the Raman Singh government in 2018, peeved that their long-pending demand for the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), aimed at protecting them from exploitation, was not met. This time, they returned to the BJP fold, disillusioned with Congress, which had left unfulfilled its promise on the Act, giving gram sabhas the power for management of natural resources in Scheduled Areas. The department of panchayats fell under Deputy Chief Minister TS Singh Deo, Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel’s rival within Congress. In Madhya Pradesh, where the tribal vote has been changing hands over past elections, of the 230 Assembly seats, 47 are reserved for STs, and BJP won 24. The newly formed Bharat Adivasi Party (BAP) won a seat in Madhya Pradesh and three in Rajasthan where, of the 25 ST seats in a House of 200, BJP won 12. BJP had fielded its Rajya Sabha MP Kirodi Lal Meena in Sawai Madhopur to woo the tribal votes.
Pushed by its disappointing performance in ST seats in the Assembly elections of 2018, BJP picked up all the stops to reach out to Adivasis, a constituency nurtured by Modi. With Lok Sabha polls less than six months away, BJP would be banking on the support of this community in the three states, which account for nearly 31 per cent of the country’s total Adivasi population.
The roadmap into the hearts of the tribal communities was not laid overnight but meticulously planned over years in the backroom beyond the political battlefield. Welfare schemes and big-ticket announcements apart, Modi knew that god lay in the detail. In lauding tribal icons—eulogising their role in the freedom struggle, fighting the Mughals, or resisting conversion by Christian missionaries—he tried to soothe a raw nerve, granting their leaders a recognition that bestowed a sense of pride upon a community which for long had felt alienated.
Whether it is Birsa Munda, who in his brief life resisted British attempts to suppress tribals; Bhil freedom fighter Govind Guru; Gond queen Durgavati, who is said to have died while fighting Akbar’s army; Rani Kamlapati, also a Gond queen, after whom Bhopal’s Nawabganj railway station was renamed and inaugurated by the prime minister; or numerous other tribal icons, Modi has himself taken the lead in the outreach, some symbolic and some concrete. He has underscored that it was on his party’s watch that Droupadi Murmu, born into a Santhal family in Odisha, was made president, the first tribal to be accorded the post.
Modi is familiar with the electoral might of the tribal allegiance, having witnessed it in his home state of Gujarat. In the early 1980s, tribals were part of Congress leader Madhavsinh Solanki’s KHAM—Kshatriya, Harijan, Adivasi, Muslim—a formula mobilising marginalised communities. This may have upset the Patidars, but in 1985 Congress won 149 of the 182 Assembly seats, the most any party had won in the state till last year when BJP broke that record with 156 seats. The Adivasis, snipping their traditional ties with Congress, backed BJP which wrested 23 of the 27 reserved ST seats, mostly along the eastern part of the state bordering Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, both of which have significant tribal populations. In 2017, BJP had won just nine of Gujarat’s ST constituencies.
As part of an effort to revive unsung tribal history and heroes, ahead of the state elections last year, Modi visited Mangarh Dham in Rajasthan, bordering Gujarat, where 1,500 tribals were killed in firing by the British on November 17, 1913. In August this year, Ashok Gehlot announced that his government would provide ₹100 crore for the development of Mangarh, a place revered by the Bhils, one of the oldest tribes, from Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
As BJP and Congress competed to reach out to Adivasis, estimated to constitute 8.6 per cent of the country’s population as per Census 2011, the Modi government in 2018 revamped the Eklavya Model Residential Schools (EMRS) scheme, to ensure that every block with more than 50 per cent of an ST population and at least 20,000 tribals, based on Census 2011 data, had one EMRS. Modi has himself inaugurated several of these schools. Meanwhile, the seven-decade-old Akhil Bharatiya Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram, backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has expanded its work in various areas of tribal welfare while fiercely opposing the religious conversion of Adivasis.
Despite losing a majority of tribal seats to Congress in Assembly elections in various states, in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, BJP won 31 and Congress four of the 47 ST seats. The rest went to regional parties, across Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Rajasthan, Telangana, Tripura, and West Bengal.
AT THE EDGE OF Temari village in Chhattisgarh’s Bemetara district stands the local cooperative society yard that doubles as the local mandi. In the first fortnight of November, the rice crop had barely begun to arrive at the yard and just a handful of farmers had come to sell their produce. Among them was farmer Bisru who owns just a tad above one acre of land. He was an early arrival for a reason. With his small patch of land and just 20-odd quintals of rice, Bisru’s was a fire sale. The farmer did not have the ability to hold rice for a better price that could be realised a bit later in the marketing season. Once he realised the proceeds from the sale, Bisru planned to move to Hyderabad for the first half of the coming year. There, in his words, he would engage in majoori (daily labour). In his case, there is no difference between majoori and majboori (compulsion).
Yet, even in his precarious existence, Bisru is politically very aware. As a recipient of multiple tranches of benefit transfers under the PM-KISAN programme, he openly said that Modi has credibility: “Over the years I have seen multiple promises of loan waivers, help and aid made to farmers. But only one man delivered. I have trust in him.”
At the end of the day what matters in the rough and tumble of India’s politics is credibility. The days when one could make promises and forget about them for five years are over. What works now is the daily delivery of welfare in state after state yet to fully realise the fruits of India’s economic miracle. These are places that cannot be left to the market to work its magic; here the state is needed. Otherwise, people like Bisru are certain to perish.
What has worked for BJP, in contrast to Congress, is a different economic approach. On paper, both parties are committed to welfare and have each, in their time in power, spent enormous sums of money to that end. Where the difference kicks in are the ultimate goals: whether to keep a large section of the precariat on permanent dole or whether to empower it, however faltering the steps may be. For now, the verdict has been delivered in favour of the latter approach.