Newly appointed Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Kamal Nath’s announcement on Monday promising incentives to industries that reserve 70% of jobs for the state’s residents has drawn sharp criticism. Obsevers pointed out that large numbers of Dalits and Adivasis from the poorest districts of Madhya Pradesh migrate to places such as Delhi, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Gujarat for work and could face a backlash.

“What if these states pass similar diktats?” asked Anurag Modi of the non-profit Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, which advocates for the rights of Adivasi workers. “Will the chief minister be able to provide jobs to all of them?”

Nath had encouraged industries to hire locally while announcing the launch of four garment parks in the state. “People from other states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh come here and local people don’t get jobs,” he said on Monday. “I have signed [a] file for this.” Even as a case was filed against him in a court in Bihar for “creating an atmosphere of distrust for migrant workers in Madhya Pradesh”, Nath defended his remarks on Wednesday, saying that other states followed similar policies.

According to a Central government report based on Census estimates, Madhya Pradesh is placed fourth in terms of people leaving their home state in search of work, after Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand.

This migration became especially apparent in the run-up to the November 28 Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, when reports noted that the absence of large numbers of registered voters in various constituencies had given political parties cause for concern.

‘Remarks are unconstitutional’

Nath’s comments have drawn sharp criticism not just from political opponents in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh but also left some in his own party baffled. “Congress is not a regional party,” said a senior Congress leader from Bihar, who did not want to be identified. “The Constitution gives us the right to work anywhere in the country.”

Many political observers and activists in Madhya Pradesh were critical of Nath’s promise. They said his remarks were “politically immature” and “unconstitutional”, made with an eye on the general elections in 2019.

“It is a lollipop for 2019,” said political analyst Girija Shanker. “Mark my words, these schemes will not materialise even after 2019 elections.”

Social activist Sachin Jain from Bhopal noted that Nath’s announcement “doesn’t spell out the policy framework”.

“Did the chief minister hold consultations with experts?” he asked. “Was there any mapping done? Were industrialists, bureaucrats or other stakeholders consulted? All these questions remain unanswered, which leads to the conclusion that this was done keeping the 2019 elections in mind.”

Jain suggested the new government work towards providing employment rather than on such potentially divise rhetoric. He pointed out, for instance, that the textile industry in Indore was in dire need of revival and had the potential to employ thousands of people. “Indore had some of the biggest textile mills after Mumbai but in the last three or four decades, they have either shut down or have become defunct,” he explained. “In some mills, there are disputes between labourers and owners.”

Another Maharashtra?

Nath’s remarks, predictably, drew condemnation from politicians in the states he targeted. Many of them drew a parallel with leaders of the Shiv Sena and Maharashtra Navnirman Sena, who have attacked migrants from Hindi-speaking states in Mumbai as part of their “sons of the soil” rhetoric.

“Earlier, such a narrow populist thought was propagated by the likes of Shiv Sena and MNS but now even Congress has joined the bandwagon,” said Bihar leader and Rashtriya Janata Dal spokesperson Manoj Jha. “This reflects the journey of parochialism in India.”

Jha added, “This is not the idea of India, not even that of the Congress.”

Former Uttar Pradesh chief minister and Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh Yadav had similar thoughts. “In Maharashtra, you hear questions like ‘Why have North Indians come here?’” he said. “The same questions come from Delhi. Now this is coming from Madhya Pradesh.”

Nath’s remarks also gave the Bharatiya Janata Party – smarting from the electoral defeat that spelt the end of its 15-year rule in Madhya Pradesh – a chance to attack the Congress. Harishchandra Shrivastava, the BJP spokesperson in Lucknow, said his party would not allow such divisive politics. “The contribution of people of UP and Bihar in building this nation cannot be forgotten,” he said. “Such attempts will not bring any success to Congress in 2019.”