Why the BJP is wooing tribal voters in Jharkhand

With chief minister and JMM chief Hemant Soren mired in legal challenges, the BJP is sensing an opportunity to gain political advantage in the state which has a significant tribal population

BJP National President JP Nadda during a rally in Ranchi, on June 5, 2022; (PTI Photo)

When BJP national president J.P. Nadda reached Ranchi on June 5 to address a public meeting, he picked Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren for all his digs and swipes. Nadda described Soren as synonymous with corruption and also reached out to the tribal communities in the state, promising their uplift through various welfare schemes of the central government.

The BJP chief’s speech revealed a two-pronged approach—attacking the Soren government and furthering the saffron party’s credentials. But the focus, largely, was on Jharkhand’s tribal population. Not only was the Ranchi rally christened after Birsa Munda, Nadda asserted how the BJP was indebted to the tribal freedom fighter for taking on the British. He also hailed other tribal icons such as Tilka Manjhi, Sidho Kanho and Budhu Bhagat, and underlined the empowerment of tribal leaders under the Narendra Modi government—citing that the country currently had eight tribal Rajya Sabha MPs, 190 MLAs and two governors.

Why is the BJP reaching out to tribal people in Jharkhand? Perhaps the missing tribal votes are the only reason why the saffron party is forced to warm the Opposition benches in the state. In the 2019 assembly polls, when the Hemant Soren-led Opposition alliance unseated the BJP from power, tribal backlash was perceived to be the biggest reason for the saffron party’s electoral upset. The JMM-Congress combine swept 25 of the 28 seats reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) whereas the BJP could bag just two of the reserved seats. The BJP’s lacklustre performance in the ST seats was in sharp contrast to its 2014 assembly election performance when the party had won 11 ST seats. Overall, in 2014, the BJP had bagged its highest tally of 37 assembly seats in Jharkhand.

According to experts, the actual ST population in Jharkhand could be higher than the Census 2011 figure of 26.3 per cent. With 28 of the total 81 assembly seats reserved for STs, the significance of the tribal vote goes beyond the reserved seats.

Since November 2000, when Jharkhand was created out of Bihar, the state has seen 11 governments, including the existing one led by Hemant Soren, apart from three stints of president’s rule. The BJP has led five of these governments while once it backed the Shibu Soren government for four months before pulling the plug on him in May 2010. The JMM too has led five governments, besides backing the Madhu Koda government in 2006-2008. As things stand, the JMM and BJP are the two main political forces in Jharkhand.

Jharkhand BJP president Deepak Prakash rejected suggestions that Nadda’s rally was an early beginning of the 2024 Lok Sabha campaign. “It was our Atal Bihari Vajpayee government that created Jharkhand in November 2000. The people of the state know it very well that the BJP created the state after years of struggle. The Hemant Soren government may have misled a section of tribal communities in one election, but their misdeeds have exposed them. More and more people, both tribal and non-tribal, are enthusiastically joining our party,” he said.

Jharkhand is home to four major tribal groups—Santhal, Munda, Ho and Oraon. While the BJP is traditionally known to control the Munda votes (owing to impact of saffron leaders like Karia Munda and Arjun Munda), the JMM has a following among the Santhals and the Congress is considered to have the backing of Ho and Oraon communities. The 2019 assembly polls, however, saw even Munda deserting the BJP. Now, by once again projecting tribal leaders like Babulal Marandi and Arjun Munda just when Hemant Soren appears vulnerable in the midst of legal battles, the BJP is clearly aiming to win back the tribal community. But, it will be easier said than done.

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