The politically crucial Malwa-Nimar region of Madhya Pradesh played a key role in propelling the Congress to power in 2018 after a gap of 15 years and the party is utilising the Rahul Gandhi-led Bharat Jodo Yatra to strengthen its position in the belt a year ahead of the Assembly polls.
The yatra’s focus on Malwa-Nimar during its Madhya Pradesh leg will help the party revive its organization at the grassroots level and also allow it to reap electoral benefits, according to a section of Congress leaders and political observers.
Mindful of the political significance of the region, which accounts for 66 of the total 230 Assembly seats, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), too, has stepped up its efforts to consolidate its position in Malwa-Nimar and retain its hold on power in the state.
Gandhi’s cross-country march reached Baroda Ahir village, the birthplace of tribal icon and revolutionary Tantya Bheel in Pandhana tehsil in Khandwa district on November 24, a day after the yatra entered Madhya Pradesh in Burhanpur district. The Congress MP addressed a rally at Baroda Ahir where he batted for the restoration of the rights of tribals and paid rich tributes to Tantya Bheel.
However, a day before that, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan arrived at the village in tribal-dominated Nimar and flagged off Janjatiya Gaurav Yatra, an outreach programme of the BJP which is aggressively wooing adivasis.
Chouhan also offered floral tributes to Tantya Bheel and met his family members during his visit. Known as the Indian “Robin Hood”, Tantya Bheel is hailed as a revolutionary who waged an armed struggle against British rule for 12 years. It is said the tribal leader used to loot the treasuries of the British government and distribute the plundered wealth among the poor.
A BJP leader said the party is focusing not just on Malwa-Nimar, but the entire state, where the Assembly polls are due by 2023-end, and reaching out to different segments of the society.
State BJP secretary Rajneesh Agrawal told PTI, “Our party is not only working in the Malwa-Nimar region for long but also in other parts of the state to consolidate its position among people.” Six Janjatiya Gaurav Yatras are being taken out in MP and a separate march to spread awareness about the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA Act), too, is underway, he said.
Agrawal said these events were planned by the BJP in advance as part of a strategy and they have nothing to do with Gandhi’s unity march, which started in Tamil Nadu on September 7.
The central government had last year declared November 15 as Janjatiya Gaurav Diwas to mark the birth anniversary of tribal leader Birsa Munda and remember the contribution of tribal freedom fighters.
The PESA Act was formulated to prevent the exploitation of the tribal population. It gives special powers to gram sabhas in scheduled areas, especially in the management of natural resources. “The yatra is not gaining much support from the people and it will not benefit the Congress party,” Agrawal claimed.
In the 2018 Assembly elections, out of the 66 seats in the Malwa-Nimar region, the Congress had bagged 35 (the total count was 114), a tally which helped the party form its government in Madhya Pradesh in December that year under the leadership of Kamal Nath.
The BJP had got 28 seats, while three were won by Independents. In 2013, the BJP had won a whopping 56 seats in Malwa-Nimar, the Congress 9, and Independent 1. However, after the fall of the Kamal Nath-led Congress government in March 2020 due to the resignation of 22 party MLAs and subsequent bypolls in 2020-2021, the BJP’s strength in the region rose to 33. On the other hand, the Congress tally was reduced to 30. Out of these 66 seats, 22 are reserved for scheduled tribes (STs) and nine for scheduled castes (SCs).
The total number of reserved seats in the region is 31 and among them, the Congress has 20 in its kitty and the BJP 10, while one Assembly segment is represented by an Independent.
Out of the total 22 ST seats, the Congress has 14 with it, while the BJP has seven and Independent one. The nine SC seats are distributed between the Congress (6) and the BJP (3).
Though Congress leaders have maintained that the purpose of the yatra was not to seek electoral gains, the route planned by its managers in Madhya Pradesh clearly indicates the foot-march is focused on the Malwa-Nimar region.
During its stay in MP, the yatra will be passing through through Burhanpur, Khandwa, Khargone, Indore, Ujjain, and Agar Malwa districts of the region before entering Rajasthan in the first week of December.
However, the unity march’s impact will also be felt in other districts of Malwa, including Shajapur, Dewas, Barwani, Jhabua, Dhar, Alirajpur, Ratlam, Mandsaur and Neemuch, and beyond them to the entire state, Madhya Pradesh Congress general secretary JP Dhanopia said. It will benefit the party not only in the next Assembly polls in the state (2023), but also in the parliamentary elections (2024), Dhanopia said.
However, senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh said the 3,570km long Kanniyakumari to Kashmir yatra is above electoral politics and its objective is to save the Constitution and democracy in the country. “We are not seeking votes through this yatra. There are few things that cannot be related to elections,” the Rajya Sabha MP, the main organizer of the march, said in Burhanpur after the yatra entered for its 380km long Madhya Pradesh leg.
Senior journalist Prakash Hindustani said though Congress leaders are saying the yatra is not related to elections, Gandhi, during his interactions, is touching upon subjects that will certainly benefit the party in future polls.
The Congress’s mass outreach programme will benefit the party in the Malwa-Nimar region and also revive its organisation at the ground level, he said.