Big posters of Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) leader Chhotubhai Vasava and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal lined up the roads leading to Chanderiya village in south Gujarat’s Bharuch district on Sunday. Scores of Adivasi villagers from nearby hamlets walked to the venue of a public meeting of the BTP and the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) to catch a glimpse of Kejriwal, but the buzz surrounding “Chhotu Dada (Vasava)” was also palpable.
At the venue, AAP and BTP workers worked side by side under a shamiana (marquee), placing mattresses for the incoming crowd. To keep the audience engaged before Kejriwal’s arrival, AAP leader Isudan Gadhvi took to the stage to promote the achievements of the Delhi government in education and healthcare. Appealing to women voters, Gadhvi claimed that Kejriwal was the “only leader in India to have truly empowered women” by providing free and safe rides on public transport.
Distracted now and then, the audience followed along as Gadhvi spoke of the AAP’s successes in Delhi. But when Kejriwal — whom most had seen before only on televisions — started speaking, they listened with rapt attention. The Delhi chief minister explained to the audience why they should vote for the BTP-AAP alliance in the Assembly elections scheduled for later this year.
“Do you have a government primary school here that provides English-medium education?” Kejriwal. “Are your children looking at a bright future in government schools? In New Delhi, it took us seven years to restore the government schools to their glory and today even children of judges, doctors, and officers study in government schools in Delhi.”
Both Bharuch and the neighboring district of Narmada — where the BTP has a big presence but faces a challenge from the BJP — do not have a single English-medium government school. The number of government schools in the region has shrunk as several of them have been merged. In Vasava’s village Maljipura, the government primary school has been merged with the school in the adjoining village of Dharoli.
Kejriwal’s promise of replicating the AAP’s successes in Delhi in the impoverished region seemed to strike a chord with some of the villagers. One of them said, “The recruitment of teachers has been an issue. To combine resources, they have merged classes. They still do not have an adequate number of teachers … We have heard so much about the schools in New Delhi. If someone can make the system work in Gujarat, it will be a boon for our children.”
For the tribal population in the area, the Congress-BTP alliance was one of the options in the last state and general elections. Vasava and his son Mahesh, the BTP president, hold both the Assembly segments reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs) in the Bharuch parliamentary constituency. While Vasava is the MLA from Jhagadia in Bharuch, Mahesh represents Dediapada in Narmada. The Congress holds Jambusar while the BJP, the ruling party, bagged Karjan, Vagra, Bharuch, and Ankleshwar in the 2017 state polls.
These are among the seats where the AAP will look to gain a toehold. Apart from the Delhi model of governance, the other weapon in its arsenal is Kejriwal himself. Said Netrang resident Ranu Vasava, “Ever since the news of the BTP and the AAP joining hands, we have been hopeful that it will bring about something good for the state if they come to power. We have seen Kejriwal’s work in Delhi and he seems like a promising leader … The Congress is nowhere in sight. We have not seen the Congress doing any voter outreach since the Lok Sabha election in 2019.”
The BTP allied with the Asaduddin Owaisi-led All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM) in last year’s local body elections but to those in the audience, the AAP seems a better option.
“Now, the AAP has the experience of running a government,” said a 40-year-old farmworker from the village of Valia in Bharuch. “The speech by Kejriwal was not filled with emotional talk but practical issues of education and health, which are the two main problems we face after the issue of drinking water. We need someone who can change this. We have always pinned hopes on parties who have run governments. AIMIM did not contest panchayat seats, so the alliance did not make any difference to the tribals. But the AAP, with the power it has to turn around the government, is giving us hope.”
In his speech, Kejriwal urged voters in the tribal belt to give his party a chance to transform education and healthcare in the region. The AAP leader claimed Delhi’s residents do not have to worry about medical bills because of free healthcare services. In Bharuch and Narmada, most people rely on medical facilities in Vadodara city during emergencies, especially the government-run SSG Hospital for free medical care of quality standard. The entire tribal belt also does not have no-cost maternal care centres. Earlier, the only such facility nearby was in Chhotaudepur district’s Bodeli taluka. It was set up following a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the government and the Dipak Foundation. But it closed down in April 2021 after the state administration did not renew the MoU.
“For deliveries, we have to rush to midwives or rely on private hospitals, where bills for C-sections and complicated deliveries are unaffordable … Most tribal women end up with complications due to anaemia and malnourishment…,” said a woman from Chanderiya, before asking, “Can Kejriwal really provide free healthcare? Is it true that he has done it in Delhi or is he also painting us a rosy picture?”
New start for BTP
For the BTP, the alliance with the AAP is an attempt to turn around electoral fortunes and reverse its shrinking footprint in the state.
Among the primary tasks for the Vasavas will be to get more seats to contest in the Assembly polls and push for the implementation of the Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, and the Fifth Schedule in tribal areas. Both the PESA Act and the Fifth Schedule have been bones of contention between the party and bigger political outfits.
In 2017, the tribal party’s patch with the Congress was largely based on 78-year-old Vasava’s relationship with the late Ahmed Patel, who was among Sonia Gandhi’s trusted advisors. Though the BTP demanded 10 constituencies during the seat-sharing negotiations, the Congress parted with only seven.
With the alliance with the Congress going nowhere, the tribal party allied with the AIMIM in last year’s local body elections. Its poll campaign in Narmada district revolved around the issues of tribal rights and the notification of an eco-sensitive zone comprising 121 villages.
The alliance did not succeed, with the BTP failing to win a single seat in Garudeshwar taluka and its tally in Dediapada taluka panchayat plummeting from 12 in 2015 to two. The 12 seats were won on the Janata Dal (United) symbol as the Vasavas were part of the Nitish Kumar-led party at the time. The tribal party stumbled in Bharuch too, losing all the three taluka panchayats of Valia, Jhagadia, and Netrang that it had won when the Vasavas were in the JD(U).
In his speech on Sunday, Vasava mentioned that a 14-point agenda had been handed over to the AAP. Kejriwal, in response, assured the tribal communities that both the parties were together in the fight to “eliminate poverty” from the “poorest of tribal areas in Gujarat”.
But the BJP will be no pushovers and it has set a target of winning 145-150 of the 182 Assembly seats in the elections.
“BTP and AAP are both parties full of liars,” said Mansukh Vasava, the five-time BJP MP from Bharuch. “Kejriwal offers freebies to win votes … People know that no regional party can win in the Gujarat Assembly polls. The AAP is a party that stands against the idea of nationalism. It will be the BJP all the way in the elections. The BTP is a party that changes its colors every election and forms alliances with new parties. The BTP is not going to win any seat, it just wants to build an image that many parties are seeking it.”
Though the ruling party has found it challenging to break into the Vasavas’ seats, it has its strongholds in Bharuch — the Assembly seats of Bharuch and Ankleshwar. The BJP has also held Vagra in the last two elections. The saffron party has never won Vasava’s seat Jhagadia, which has been with the BTP leader since 1990. Before that, the Congress held the seat. The BJP has also found the going tough in Dediapada. Though it won the constituency in 2012, Mahesh Vasava was victorious in the last election.
In the ST-reserved constituency of Nandod too, the ruling party had not had much success. Between 1975 and 2007, when it was part of the Rajpipla seat following delimitation, the party won thrice (in 1995, 2002, and 2007). The BJP won in 2012 once it reverted to being Nandod constituency but lost to the Congress last time around.