Will the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) successfully tide over anti-incumbency in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh (MP) and Rajasthan? Or will the Congress manage to return to power in these states and gain momentum in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

The answers to these questions partly lie with the Adivasi or tribal voters who wield considerable influence in these three states. Such voters form a sizeable chunk in Chhattisgarh and MP. The tribal population in Rajasthan is much less but their spatial concentration gives them considerable influence in a few districts.

Tribal voters voted in large numbers for the BJP in 2014, data from post-poll surveys conducted by Lokniti, a research program at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) shows. Until then, the Congress enjoyed a substantial lead over the BJP among this community. This may be mainly attributed to the Congress’s dominance and the BJP’s sparse presence in the Northeast and Odisha until 2014.

In central India and Jharkhand, there has historically been stiff competition for tribal support between the two main national parties. This regional divide is also visible in the performance of both parties in ST (scheduled tribe) reserved seats. In multiple elections, the BJP has actually won more reserved seats compared with the Congress, although parties can win reserved seats despite limited support among the groups for which the seats are reserved.

While the BJP-led government continued to enjoy strong support among Adivasis till 2017, this has changed since then, successive rounds of the Mood of the Nation (MOTN) survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS show.

This decline in support among Adivasis could be because of the changes in the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act (SC/ST Act), which may have exposed a chasm between upper caste and SC/ST voters and led to increasing discontent among Adivasi voters.

More than half of the Adivasi voters (54%) felt dissatisfied with the government’s handling of crimes and atrocities against them, the MOTN survey shows. They were slightly more likely (62%) as compared to scheduled caste voters (57%) to oppose changes to the SC/ST Act. The continuing controversy over the Act is likely to have a significant impact on the poll outcomes across the three states. After the BJP-led Union government promulgated an ordinance to maintain status quo on the SC/ST Act, upper caste voters have taken to the streets to demand its dilution.

However, there are significant differences in party loyalties across states.

In Chhattisgarh, where they matter the most, the Congress had a lead of 9 percentage points over the BJP among Adivasis in the last assembly elections. Even in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP did not lead among tribals here. This time, former chief minister Ajit Jogi’s Chhattisgarh Janata Congress could play spoilsport and hurt the Congress if he manages to wean away a section of the party’s tribal support.

In MP, the BJP has had greater support among Adivasis than the Congress since 2013. In 2014, the BJP had a massive lead of 14 percentage points among them over the Congress.

In Rajasthan, the BJP and Congress had performed equally well among tribal voters in 2013. However, the overwhelming support among other communities allowed the BJP to win 18 out of the 25 ST seats as compared with only two in 2008.

How the BJP rides out the storm over the SC/ST Act, and how it balances the demands of its core support base (upper caste voters) against those of its new voters (SC/ST groups) will shape the electoral verdict in December.

Sanjay Kumar is professor and currently director of CSDS and Pranav Gupta is a PhD student at the University of California at Berkeley, US.

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