Tribal vacuum in mainstream parties

Soren in the garden at his residence in Bokaro. (PTI)
New Delhi, Jan. 9: The BJP has wrenched power in “yet another state”. The Congress is looking at long-term gains by refusing to back Shibu Soren. But the Jharkhand verdict has also opened the eyes of the two mainline parties to a disturbing realisation: their failure to “nurture” tribal leaders.
“Both of us stand exposed as out-and-out upper caste parties who have failed to create, and worse, nurture tribal leadership. The mandate’s message is the success of two tribal leaders, Soren and our ally Babulal Marandi. Looks like the tribals have found their political niche,” said a Congress general secretary who didn’t want to be named.
The BJP’s worry is that just like Mayavati vaulted from success to success each time it propped her up as Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Soren and his JMM might grow from the coalition experiment in Ranchi.
A Jharkhand MP, privately opposed to the alliance with Soren, said Arjun Munda, who was shaping into a tribal leader of “substance”, might fall by the wayside as a result.
Karia Munda, its other tribal face, was virtually pensioned off the day he was nominated as Lok Sabha deputy Speaker, though the BJP tried to earn brownie points on the move.
The prospect of a rapprochement with its other former chief minister, Marandi, seems remote right now.
“We could have given Sumitra Mahajan, a woman, the post. But we opted for a tribal,” said Vinay Sahasrabuddhe, the political adviser to new BJP president Nitin Gadkari.
The Congress is more or less in the same boat. “If the BJP hangs on to Soren, we will cling to Marandi,” the general secretary conceded.
The inability to promote tribal leaders is evident in the power structure of the two parties.
The BJP’s upper echelons are dominated by Brahmins. Of the 19 top posts in the organisation, eight are Brahmins, including Gadkari, three are banias, two are from the backward castes and three are Dalits.
Jual Oram, a vice-president, a sinecure for spent forces, is the lone tribal among the 19.
After the BJP’s rout in the Orissa elections, caused by the defection of its once formidable tribal voters, party leaders attempted a mid-course correction by anointing Oram as state president.
In Chhattisgarh, a predominantly tribal state ruled by the BJP, its most prominent public leaders are chief minister Raman Singh, a Thakur, and his colleague Brij Mohan Aggarwal, a bania.
The Congress’s Brahmin lobby in the state — which includes Motilal Vora and Vidya Charan Shukla — spent more time and energy vanquishing Ajit Jogi, one of its best known tribal leaders, than recouping the party’s base.
“The BJP lacks a tribal face,” Sahasrabuddhe acknowledged. He said the party’s training and resource centre, the Rambhau Mhalige Trust in Mumbai which he heads, recently launched a training programme to identify tribal youths with leadership potential.
“Unfortunately, they are not as articulate as the others although they are as intellectually equipped, if not more,” he said. “Confidence-building will take time.”
While the BJP has one Oram, the Congress’s organisational hierarchy is bereft of a tribal member. “If our leaders talk of inclusive growth, I challenge them to put it in practice or explain to the party why it failed to,” the general secretary said.
Delhi University academic and sociologist Virginius Xaxa said the problem lay in the BJP’s and the Congress’s genes.
“These parties work on the dependency syndrome. They have not given positions of responsibility to tribals. Unlike in most of the north-eastern states, where they have no choice because tribals are in an overwhelming majority, in Chhattisgarh and Orissa the parties are manned predominantly by non-tribals,” said Xaxa, who has worked extensively on tribal empowerment or lack of it.
“At least the BJP is forced to demonstrate its commitment to the SCs and STs. The Congress has internalised the idea of co-option.”