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Lesson learned from 2018, BJP ramping up Dalit & tribal outreach in MP to counter Bhim Army buzz

Matter discussed at length during meeting of senior party leaders earlier this month. BJP plans to increase 'micro-level coordination' and reach out to beneficiaries of govt schemes.

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New Delhi: Alarmed by the increasing influence of new outfits such as the Bhim Army and Jan Adivasi Yuva Shakti (JAYS) among the Dalit and tribal populations of Madhya Pradesh, the BJP has decided to strengthen its outreach efforts in the state.

Party leaders say that lack of support from Dalits and tribals was one of the factors that prevented the BJP from securing a majority in the 2018 polls. The party had won 109 seats as opposed to the Congress’s 114 in the 230-member state assembly.

With just a year to go until the next assembly elections, the matter came up for discussion at a marathon closed-door meeting of top national and state BJP leaders at a resort in the Ratapani Wildlife Sanctuary on 1 October. Among the attendees were BJP general secretary (organisation) B L Santhosh, state party president V D Sharma, BJP’s MP in-charge Muralidhar Rao, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, and state Home Minister Narottam Mishra.

“Apart from other issues, there was a discussion at length on the anti-BJP forces. While the BSP (Bahujan Samaj Party) used to be a major factor earlier, we have seen their influence diminish as some new forces such as the Bhim Army and JAYS have been growing over a period of time,” a senior BJP leader told ThePrint, adding: “What impact they may have in terms of seats is too early to say but they have become a topic of discussion among the SC/ST (Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes) populations.”

Madhya Pradesh has India’s highest number of tribals, with STs comprising 21.5 per cent of the state’s population, according to the 2011 Census, and SCs 15.6 per cent. There are 47 seats reserved for STs and 35 for SCs in the state. In 2018, the BJP won 16 ST seats, against 31 in 2013. In SC seats, the BJP won 17 in 2018, as compared to 28 in 2013.

The BJP emerged as the second-largest party in the 2018 election. However, it managed to form the government in March 2020 after Jyotiraditya Scindia, now a Union minister, defected to the BJP with 22 Congress MLAs.

A second party leader said that currently, the BJP gets 30-35 per cent of the SC/ST votes,  and the target is to reach 75 per cent.

However, there are fears that upcoming political outfits could further split SC/ST votes in the state, particularly in districts of regions bordering Uttar Pradesh, like Gwalior-Chambal, Bundelkhand and Vindhya Pradesh where the BSP and Samajwadi Party have a substantial presence due to the predominantly SC/ST/OBC population.

Also read: Why two key ‘cow constituencies’ are locking horns with BJP govt in poll-bound Gujarat

Rise of Bhim Army, and Lodhi factor

The BJP has been trying to boost its SC/ST support base for a while now, and had even launched an outreach campaign last year to help it become a ‘party of tribals and Dalits’.

That has not exactly panned out yet, with the biggest region of concern being Gwalior-Chambal, where the Bhim Army has been making some inroads. Its co-founder Chandrashekhar Azad has also announced that the party’s political wing, the Azad Samaj Party, plans to contest the 2023 elections in MP.

Another unexpected complication arose after the BJP expelled Pritam Singh Lodhi, a prominent OBC leader in the Gwalior-Chambal region, over his controversial remarks about Brahmins in August.

“After being expelled, Lodhi joined hands with the Bhim Army, which has been continuously strengthening its roots in Madhya Pradesh,” said a third state BJP leader told ThePrint.

“A programme was organised recently in Shivpuri [in Gwalior division], which was attended by Bhim Army co-founder Chandrashekhar Azad. It attracted huge crowds, and since then people have been noticing the buzz around the Bhim Army in Gwalior-Chambal. Politics has become even more heated with Pritam Singh Lodhi lending support to the Bhim Army,” he added.

On top of this, the BJP lost the Gwalior and Morena mayoral seats in the corporation elections in July. These two losses in the Gwalior-Chambal region caused additional discomfiture since it is a stronghold of Union ministers Scindia and Narendra Singh Tomar. Senior state leaders like Jaibhan Singh Pawaiya and Narottam Mishra also come from this region.

‘Intense brainstorming’, new district chiefs

While the BSP has played challenger to the BJP in the Gwalior-Chambal region, its popularity has been dipping over the last few years. The BJP’s goal now is to fill any vacuum that has arisen.

In 2013, the BSP had garnered 6.42 per cent of the total votes polled in MP, and won four seats — Dimni, Ambah, Raigaon and Mangawan. But in the 2018 assembly elections, it got only 5.11 per cent of votes and won two seats, one in Bhind district’s Bhind constituency and the other in Damoh district’s Patharia. Majority of the BSP votes tend to come from the rural seats in the Gwalior-Chambal and Vindhya regions.

“Intense brainstorming took place and it was discussed how new outfits are trying to create a space for themselves in the state through these districts, especially with the BSP popularity waning in some parts. We are going to increase micro-level coordination and at the same time reach out to the beneficiaries of government schemes,” the third BJP leader said.

He added that party workers have been asked to strengthen their activities and outreach for the SC and ST communities, especially in the Bundelkhand and Gwalior-Chambal regions bordering UP, where the BSP wields more influence.

Significantly, after the 1 October meeting, in the backdrop of the loss of the Morena and Gwalior mayoral seats, the party replaced four district chiefs in the Gwalior-Chambal region — Bhind, Gwalior, Ashok Nagar, and Guna. The district chief was also replaced for Katni, where BJP rebel Preeti Suri, contesting as an Independent, defeated the party’s official candidate.

‘Our duty to keep an eye on Bhim Sena, JAYS’

Sources in the party said a big section of SCs and STs in the state are still hesitant to support the BJP. This is a factor leaders attribute to inadequate representation for the communities in the BJP organisation, which is something the party hopes to fix quickly.

Asked about how the party plans to counter the advance of new outfits like Bhim Army and JAYS, state BJP chief V D Sharma told ThePrint that they were “not a threat”, but that “it is our duty to keep an eye on them as a political party”.

He added that the BJP had rolled out several welfare programmes for SCs, STs, and Other Backward Classes (OBCs) at the central and state level and expected that this would pay dividends.

“Right from celebrating Jan Jatiya Diwas to organising Valmiki Jayanti, we believe in sabka saath, sabka vikaas (support of all, development for all). We have been working for their growth and will continue to do so. Our PM too has always focused on the welfare of the downtrodden and the poor sections of the society and we are fulfilling that agenda,” he added.

(Edited by Asavari Singh)

Also read: Clashes over ‘love jihad’, police action — garba venues turn political arenas in Gujarat, MP


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