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Fight For Tribal Votes

Bhubaneswar: When BJP announced the name of Droupadi Murmu, a woman from tribal community in Odisha, as its Presidential candidate in 2022, it was Governing BJD President and Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik who went into overdrive and first to welcome her. Naveen’s BJD during that time mingled with the saffron brigade in celebrating Shrimati Murmu’s candidate even though she hailed from a different political background. From the initial days, BJD Supremo perhaps had realized Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Plan. He knows pretty well that BJP was trying to capture the tribal votes of Odisha.

Though, there is no space for caste, creed and religion in Odisha Politics, Naveen Patnaik knows that tribal population matters when it comes to elections. Tribal constitute over 22 per cent of the state’s population so also in the voters list. Their number is around one crore in the State and apparently 50 lakhs of voters from among the State’s 3.26 crore. Tribals traditionally were vote banks of Congress and Indira Gandhi. However, over decades, the tribals appeared to have changed their political affiliation in Odisha after Naveen announced Rs 1 kg rice scheme and also several sops exclusively for the community. Naveen has also received rich dividends and tribal people have voted him in successive State Assembly and Lok Sabha elections.

However, scenario changed in 2019 general elections when tribals also voted for BJP candidates in large number in Lok Sabha elections. Of the eight Lok Sabha seats won by the BJP candidates, six were from tribal belt. The BJP candidates won 2019 elections in Sundergarh, Mayurbhanj, Kalahandi, Bolangir, Bargarh, Balasore, Bhubaneswar and Sambalpur. The lotus symbol was accepted by the people in tribal dominated constituencies like Sundergarh, Mayurbhanj, Kalahandi, Bolangir, Bargarh and Sambalpur. The BJD candidates on the other hand could win in only three tribal dominated Lok Sabha constituencies like Nabarangpur, Kandhamal and Keonjhar. Similarly, Congress’s lone MP from the state was elected from Koraput Lok Sabha segment.  The state has reserved at least eight Lok Sabha seats and 32 Assembly seats for ST, keeping in view of their population ratio.

However, the tribal politics, suddenly came to the fore when the Naveen Patnaik Government decided to amend the law to allow ST people to transfer their land to non-tribals. This move of the state’s BJD Government was opposed by the opposition BJP and Congress accusing the present dispensation of acting as “anti-tribal.” Before the situation became further worse, State Government took corrective measures. Revenue and Disaster Management Minister Sudam Marndi announced that the Government had put its November 14 cabinet decision on hold.

Subsequently, the issue snowballed into controversy and the ongoing Assembly session provided bigger ammo for the opposition to grind the government. Meanwhile, Chief Minister convened another Cabinet meeting on November 24 and decided to send the matter of STs being allowed to transfer their land to non-tribals be further discussed in the Tribes Advisory Council(TAC) meeting. Interestingly in the last TAC meeting held on 11 July, 2023, endorsed the same proposal, where both the Opposition BJP and Congress Members were present and discussed the issue threadbare. Now the opposition members are presenting their case differently, looking at their political interest, pointed out a senior political analyst.

Political slugfest has started in Odisha with both the opposition and ruling party accusing each other of being “anti-tribal.” Both the BJP Government in Delhi and BJD Government in Odisha have been displaying their pro-tribal activities in the public. The Modi Government’s tribal thrust is also seen in this year’s Union Budget, with Rs 15,000 crore allotted for the PM Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Group (PVTG) Mission.

The BJP’s target is obvious. Through PM PVTG Mission, the saffron party could easily get support of the tribals in Odisha. The state is home to the highest number of PVTGs and over 9% of the country’s tribal population.

However, Naveen Patnaik’s BJD Government was not lagging behind to appease the tribal community. Besides supporting Droupadi Murmu’s candidate in Presidential elections, the State’s BJD Government allocated a hefty Rs 4,651 crore to the scheduled tribes and scheduled castes, minorities and other backward classes department in its annual budget. Sources said that of the Rs 38,437 crore projected for schematic development of STs and SCs across departments, the tribal sub-component alone stands at Rs 21,950 crore.

This apart, the BJD Government has also made provision of Rs 500 crore for a new scheme on the livelihood of tribal youth under the Mukhyamantri Janajati Jeebika Mission. Odisha too rolled out a Mukhya Mantri Yojana to counter the Centre’s Pradhan Mantri scheme. The state government has also announced Rs 2,800 crore for the Phase II implementation of the Odisha Millet Mission to benefit tribal districts.

Odisha Government in Assembly recently highlighted its pro-tribal activities by making a claim that it has set up Special Development Councils across districts for preserving tradition and culture of tribal and also development of their places of worship. It also said that the state government was spending crores for the tribal girl’s education, imparting better studies for the tribal students. Janajatiya Gaurab Diwas Samaroh is organized in a big way across the State with active participation of tribal groups, thanks to efforts of SCSTRTI and Department of ST SC OBC Development. Recognizing efforts for various tribal groups and their language and literature has seen huge leap.

However the Congress on the other hand claimed that it was the lone political party which has done many things for the development of tribals. The Forest Rights Act, 2006 was one of the major steps of Congress for which lakhs of tribals have availed land and other rights over the forest produce.

Anyway, the debate over who is actually a friend of the tribal community will continue till the next elections in 2024. The tribal peoples’ verdict in the upcoming polls may indicate which party gains the confidence of tribal people. In fact all the political parties love to play tribal card. And which is more and which is less it will come to fore in 2024 General and Assembly polls.