The BJP’s poor performance in Jharkhand has reignited debates about its acceptability among tribals. Jharkhand has more than 26 per cent tribal population and 28 out of 81 assembly seats reserved for STs. What’s worse for the BJP is the fact that it won 11 ST-reserved seats in 2014, which dipped to only two this time.
India Today Data Intelligence Unit (DIU) analysed results of recent assembly elections and found that tribals have been increasingly distancing themselves from the BJP. DIU analysed election results of 522 assembly seats reserved for STs in 20 states. Data processed by Trivedi Centre for Political Data, Ashoka University, showed that the BJP has only 144 or 27.59 per cent of these seats to itself.
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Segregating the data into regions, DIU found that in the central Indian tribal belt, which includes Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, BJP has hardly 20 per cent of the total seats.
BJP’s situation is relatively better in the western region, though their percentage is still low. Of the total 77 assembly seats reserved for STs in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, BJP has only 26 (34 per cent).
In the eastern coastal states of Odisha and West Bengal, where the BJP stunned the opposition and poll experts alike in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, it has only 24 per cent of ST-reserved seats.
Interestingly, the northeastern part of the country is where the BJP has the highest number of ST seats. For instance, in Arunachal Pradesh, where 59 seats are reserved for STs, the BJP won 41 or 69.5 per cent. In Assam, of the 16 ST seats, the BJP has won in 62.5 per cent; in Tripura, it is 47 per cent.
It is, however, important to note that in Arunachal Pradesh, sitting chief minister Pema Khandu, along with 43 Congress MLAs, had defected to BJP ally People’s Party of Arunachal. In 2019, the state witnessed re-election in which BJP won. Our data analysis showed that of the 41 victorious BJP MLAs, 19 were turncoats (those who had won on another party’s ticket in previous elections).
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Lok Sabha stats, however, show a completely opposite picture. In 2014, BJP had won 27 of the 47 Parliamentary seats reserved for STs; in 2019, it rose to 31.
In the eastern coastal region, BJP managed to win 57 per cent of Lok Sabha seats reserved for STs. In the central region, it won 12 of the 15 Lok Sabha seats reserved for STs, with a strike rate of 80 per cent.
In the western region, BJP won all tribal seats of Gujarat and Rajasthan. The region’s average for the BJP, including Maharashtra, was 91 per cent.
The Northeast, where BJP is a rising power in state assemblies, does not seem to differ its voting preference in the Lok Sabha elections. Of the total seven Lok Sabha seats reserved for STs, BJP could hardly win two, averaging 29 per cent in the region.
We ask experts how it happened.
Local issues matter
Neelanjan Sircar, a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, believes that local issues, pertinent to tribals, play a crucial role in state assembly elections, impacting their voting preferences.
“The incumbencies and issues at both state and national level elections differ. BJP lost big in Jharkhand’s tribal region since local issues were at play. Its attempts to modify tenancy norms which would make tribal land acquisition easier was not welcomed by the community,” he said.
“Also, during national elections, since tribal voters do not have many options, they vote for Narendra Modi. But state assembly polls are fought on local issues and by local leaders, and thus they are left with more options,” Sircar added.
Stats can mislead he said.
Sanjay Kumar, director at the Centre for Development Studies, feels that understanding tribal voters via tribal seats could mislead analysts.
“Barring north-eastern states, tribal seats are not a very good proxy for understanding tribal voting patterns. Tribals are seldom a majority in these seats. If BJP lost a tribal seat, it doesn’t mean that tribals didn’t vote for the party. There could be tribals who voted for BJP, but non-BJP voters outnumbered them. Rather, the pulse of tribals can be checked via surveys,” he said.
“Tribal voting pattern in north-eastern states differ from the mainland. Tribals there prefer a leader over a party, and thus, you would see a lot of turncoats benefitting in the recent state assembly elections,” Kumar explained.
Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, cites two possible explanations behind this voting pattern.
“First, we should consider a political economy explanation. The tribal-dominated areas are usually rural and poor, and the sagging economy might be making things worse for incumbent parties. Common voters are hurt by the economic slowdown, and hence, they opt to reject the incumbent party at the state level, and in these cases, it’s the BJP,” he said.
“Second, this variation is likely due to leadership and mobilisation factor. Off late, the BJP is losing in state assembly elections across the board, and the Opposition, which performed poorly during the Lok Sabha elections, is somehow putting up a better show. Thus, a large section of tribals voting for BJP and Narendra Modi during the national elections is opting for Congress and regional parties during assembly elections,” he added.