Since the Patidars, the core constituency of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, took to the streets in July 2015 demanding reservation in government jobs, the ruling party has been trying to engineer a new social coalition. It might be succeeding, and just in time for the Assembly election in December.

Anticipating erosion in its Patidar support, the BJP set out to win over Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes such as Thakors and Kolis, which are currently split almost equally between the BJP and the Congress. The Scheduled Tribes, which account for about 15% of the state’s population, could determine the outcome on 27 seats reserved for them in the Assembly. Most of these seats are in eastern Gujarat. Thakors and Kolis, the numerically strongest OBCs, have significant presence in northern Gujarat and Saurashtra, respectively.

In the 2012 election, 16 of the 27 reserved seats were won by the Congress; the BJP got 10 and one seat went to Chhotubhai Vasava of the Janata Dal (United). It was almost a repeat of the election in 2007, when the Congress had won 16 seats, the BJP nine and the JD(U) one (only 26 seats were reserved for the Scheduled Tribes then).

This time, the BJP is confident of getting more Adivasis to its side. “It is true that earlier the party was not in a good shape in the tribal areas,” said the party’s general secretary Bharat Pandya. “But after a series of welfare measures and development schemes, both by the Union and state governments, the situation is changing. The new ground reality will be reflected in the results of the election.”

That is not the only reason for the BJP’s confidence, though. The party’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, and its so-called cultural affiliates have accelerated their ground work in the Adivasi areas since late last year. “In December 2016, Mohan Bhagwat addressed a meeting of swayamsevaks and pracharaks of tribal areas at Vansda in Navsari district of Gujarat,” said Kulin Pradhan, who oversees the RSS’ work at Vyara in Tapi district, referring to the RSS chief. “That speech rejuvenated local units of the Sangh and its affiliates. Pracharaks and swayamsevaks started visiting tribal villages. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Dharma Jagaran Vibhag of the RSS also became very active in the tribal areas.”

Pradhan said the number of Ekal Vidyalayas, schools run by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad in Adivasi villages, has almost doubled since December 2016. “In Tapi district alone, the number of Ekal Vidyalayas has grown from 300 last December to nearly 700 now,” he added.

Cultivating faith

The Sangh is also extensively using Harikatha, a form of Hindu religious discourse involving storytelling and singing, to “Hinduise” Gujarat’s Adivasis. “Inspired by Bhagwat’s speech, Dharma Jagaran Vibhag took up Harikatha in a big way,” Pradhan said. “It got tribals trained in Harikatha at places like Vrindavan and Ayodhya. Now it is organised at least twice or thrice a month in every tribal block of Tapi. To unite Hindu society, we have also started large-scale distribution of idols of Hindu deities to tribal villagers. In Tapi alone, we have distributed over one thousand idols so far.”

Tapi consists of two Assembly seats – Vyara and Nizar – and both are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In the 2012 election, Vyara was won by the Congress while Nizar went to the BJP. “If the BJP does not commit any mistake, it should win both the seats this time,” Pradhan asserted.

The Sangh’s concerted effort to win over the Adivasis ahead of the Assembly election has not escaped political observers. “Tribals are being made Hindus through micro-level planning by the RSS,” said Anand Vasava, assistant professor at the School of Languages, Gujarat University, and editor of Adilok, a Gujarati journal on Adivasi issues. “There are some sporadic instances of resistance coming primarily from Bhilistan Tiger Sena [an organisation that has been fighting for Adivasi rights for several years]. But, by and large, the RSS is succeeding in breaking the tribal traditions and distorting them to look similar to Hinduism.”

Vasava, who is from the Bhil tribe, complained that the Congress, despite its old ties with the Adivasis, is not doing much to prevent the RSS from distorting tribal culture and traditions. “It is because of this failure of the Congress that it has started losing support among the tribals, who are numerically as strong as Patidars,” he said. “If the Congress wants to defeat the BJP, it can’t do so without winning in tribal areas. And if it fails there, it cannot stop the BJP in the state. The tribal belt is the new battleground of Gujarat.”

Casting the net

The Adivasis, however, are not the only constituency that the BJP has set sights on. The OBCs, particularly Thakors and Kolis, are no less significant to the party’s electoral strategy. Originally part of the Congress’s support base, a section of the OBCs shifted to the BJP on the back of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement in the early 1990s. A large segment, though, stuck with the Congress. But as the Patidars have shown signs of drifting away from Hindutva politics, the BJP has concentrated on consolidating the OBCs. This explains the party’s determination to win over Alpesh Thakor, the founder of the OSS Ekta Manch and Thakur Kshatriya Sena. OSS is short for OBC, Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe.

The son of an old Congress hand, Alpesh Thakor first grabbed headlines when he opposed the Patidar agitation. Of late, he has scaled down his rhetoric against the BJP and is said to be mulling over joining the ruling party.

As part of its new electoral strategy, the BJP has been systematically highlighting the social background of President Ram Nath Kovind and his long association with the Koli community in Gujarat. While Koli is listed as a Scheduled Caste in Uttar Pradesh, the home state of Kovind, it falls in the OBC category in Gujarat. In keeping with this approach, BJP chief Amit Shah recently asked the Gujarat government and the party’s state unit to prepare a detailed plan to reach out to the OBCs and to make their welfare a key issue in the impending election campaign. Already, a senior BJP leader said, the Gujarat government is contemplating raising the creamy layer income ceiling for OBC reservation as the Centre did last week.

Whether these measures will yield an electoral coalition involving the Adivasis and the OBCs for the BJP remains to be seen. But if the party even partly succeeds, it would deal a blow to the Congress’ bid to revive itself.

The Gujarat election is significant. Victory for the BJP will likely ease its path towards winning the 2019 Lok Sabha election. But defeat may set the tone for a series of Assembly elections – in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh – and, ultimately, for the next general election.