MP: Can Modi's Tribal Push Help BJP Recover in ST Seats Where it Suffered Losses in 2018?

Will it be the last word in this battle of buying voters with 'freebies' and promises of better infrastructure? Can the PM's popularity rescue the BJP in MP despite a sense of voter fatigue with chief minister Shivraj Chauhan? Or is it too late?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a new tribal initiative in Jharkhand on Wednesday, November 15. He announced Rs 24,000 crore towards the initiative titled ‘Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups Mission‘. The launching of the scheme in Jharkhand, a state with a sizeable tribal population, assumes significance given that Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to polls in two days, on November 17. Both the poll-bound states also have large tribal populations. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was defeated in the 2018 assembly polls in both states as tribals had deserted the party.

In Chhattisgarh, one-third of the seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribes, of which Congress won 18 of them in 2018. The BJP’s defeat in Chattisgarh was much larger than in Madhya Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, the Congress barely squeaked by, winning a majority only with outside support and marginally trailing the BJP on votes. That should not negate what the Congress had achieved, overturning a BJP majority of more than 100.

One of the big disasters for the BJP in Madhya Pradesh in 2018 was the complete reversal of its position in ST/SC seats, where over time it had built a seemingly strong base. This was shattered in the wake of violence that followed the Supreme Court throwing out Section 18 of the SC-ST Atrocities Act, adversely impacting the BJP.

When five seats determine the winner, the loss of 15 ST seats to the Congress was a big blow. Compounding that were 10 Scheduled Caste seats that fell to the Congress. While the loss of SC seats could be attributed to the Congress gaining 15% of votes at the expense of the Bahujan Samaj Party  (part of others below), the loss in tribal seats was because of the voters shifting from the BJP to Others including the tribal party Gondwana Gantantra Party (GPP), which managed two second-place finishes. This time round GPP is part of the BSP alliance.

The battle of fine margins is best exemplified by the fact that in 2018, 33 seats were won and lost by wafer-thin majorities of less than 2% and these seats were spread across the state. If you consider majorities up to 5% as marginal, then almost a third of the victories of 2018 fall in this bracket. This is why not only national and regional issues but very local issues, including the candidates, could decide the result.

The BJP identified this problem very early on when in August it released its list of candidates for 39 seats, which included Union ministers and MPs. This “early harvest” of candidates was clearly targeted at giving them adequate time to campaign in mainly Congress-held seats, which are 37 of the 39. These are also seats with a high BSP vote and where the Congress won 20 of them with margins of less than 10%.

As we have seen given the thin lead the Congress had in 2018, flipping only a third of these could bring the BJP back to power.

Both parties believe that the way to victory lies through the wallets of women and their well-being. As the percentage of women voting in MP is almost the same as men, they have become one of the key targets for both parties.

While deriding ‘revdi’ culture neither party has baulked at giving handouts, especially in cash. The Madhya Pradesh government’s Rs 1,250 a month for women in poor households is upped by the Congress to Rs 1,500. Both are cutting LPG to Rs 500 and are promising free electricity, government jobs, and pensions as part of the “women’s” package.

The close clash is reflected in the opinion polls, which all but one seem to suggest a Congress victory but the margins vary from a generous 130+ for the Congress in Zee C Fore poll (October 28) to ABP C Voter’s latest poll suggesting 113-125. Only one poll (India TV CNX) has predicted a small BJP victory. All the polls seem to underestimate third party and Others’ votes, which have traditionally been around 18% plus, at least 6% higher than the average of the polls. The reason why this is important is because even if these ‘Others’ don’t win many seats, they could help determine the winner, by cutting into potential votes of the big two. We have seen in the caste voting table the switch from BJP to Others amongst ST voters, helping the Congress gain 15 ST seats despite losing 3% vote share.

The other important point is that BJP’s vote share has remained steady throughout this period (2008 is an anomaly because Uma Bharti, the former BJP CM, launched her own party to fight the elections) above 40%. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it soared even higher reaching 54%. This solid base could protect them from losing too many more seats even if anti-incumbency plays a role. If that happens, then will the Congress be able to secure a large enough majority to avoid poaching?

Finally, is the PM’s latest tribal initiative going to have any impact at this late stage? Perhaps it will be the last word in this battle of buying voters with ‘freebies’ and promises of better infrastructure. Can the PM’s popularity rescue the BJP in Madhya Pradesh despite a sense of voter fatigue with the current chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan?

Ishwari Bajpai is a senior journalist who has covered elections since 1980.

The data has been sourced from deKoder/ iKroya and has been prepared by Namrata Gupta and Eram Durrani. The analysis is the author’s responsibility.