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All Eyes on Tribal Votes as Gujarat Govt Stalls Par Tapi Narmada Linking Project

The decision to halt the project came on March 28 after about five thousand tribals gathered in Gandhinagar on March 25 to protest against the project under the leadership of Anant Patel, MLA from Vansda constituency and tribal leader of Congress.
Par Tapi Narmada Link Project

Representational image. | Image Courtesy: Counterview

After a series of protests by tribals of south Gujarat against the Par Tapi Narmada river-linking project, the Union government has decided to put the project on hold in a meeting held in New Delhi with Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, Union Water Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Gujarat’s tribal MPs and MLAs and Gujarat BJP chief CR Patil.

The decision to halt the project came on March 28 after about five thousand tribals gathered in Gandhinagar on March 25 to protest against the project under the leadership of Anant Patel, MLA from Vansda constituency and tribal leader of Congress.

The protest coincided with the Assembly session and saw dalit leader and Vadgam MLA Jignesh Mevani, who recently joined Congress, the party's working president Hardik Patel together on the stage with Anant Patel.

While Anant Patel in his speech, demanded the withdrawal of the project and the implementation of the Panchayat (Extension of Scheduled Areas) Act (PESA) 1996, Hardik spoke against the state government’s acquisition of tribal land for the Statue of Unity in Narmada district and Mevani accused the government of ‘running bulldozers over dalits, Adivasis and OBC communities.

Noticeably, the tribals of south Gujarat have been against the project since the MoU was signed on May 3, 2010, between the Central, Gujarat and Maharashtra governments. However, the protests gained momentum after the budgetary announcement on the project by Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.

Subsequently, Congress threw its weight behind the issue in February, a few months ahead of the state elections due in December this year. The first protest was held under the leadership of Anant Patel on February 28 in Dharampur, Valsad. Thereafter, Patel led the tribals to massive demonstrations on March 5 in Vyara, Tapi district, on March 11 in Dang and on March 21 in Valsad district.

With state elections around the corner, Congress is banking on its tribal face Anant Patel to gain back its foot in tribal constituencies. The 42-year-old MLA had earlier led the protests against the Bharatmala project, another Union project pushing the government to suspend the land acquisition for the project. Patel led over 15,000 tribal leaders from south Gujarat to a massive public meeting against the project at Chikhli taluka in Navsari district in January 2019.

Congress’s move in the tribal belt comes after the party's debacle in local polls, where it lost all its tribal seats to BJP in December last year. In 2017 polls, out of 27 seats in tribal regions, 15 were won by Congress, Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) had won 2, and BJP had won 9. However, BJP won three tribal constituencies in by-polls- Morva Hadaf, Kaprada and Dang- and has gained footing in the tribal belt.

Noticeably, the MoU for the project has been signed by three parties - Centre, Gujarat and Maharashtra. But Congress is not opposing the project in Maharashtra, where it is part of the government.

“The Congress is protesting against the same project in Gujarat while supporting the project in Maharashtra. If the party is against the project, it should back out from the project in Maharashtra, where it is part of the government,” Romel Sutariya, tribal rights activist, based in Gujarat, told NewsClick.

“It cannot be ignored that the support of Congress to the ongoing movement has come strategically ahead of state elections. The party needs to gain back its tribal vote bank, especially after BJP has gained ground in tribals districts after winning massively in the local polls," added Sutariya.

However, the support garnered by Anant Patel and Congress over the issue forced BJP tribal MLAs and leaders from south Gujarat to meet Chief Minister Bhupender Patel on March 3. Reportedly, the Chief Minister assured that the state BJP would request the Central government to not go ahead with the project.

Later in the Assembly session held this month, Minister for Tribal Development Naresh Patel assured the Assembly that “not a single inch of land belonging to tribals would be acquired for the project."

Meanwhile, Aam Admi Party (AAP), the newest entrant in Gujarat’s politics, has also jumped into the fray to woo tribal votes to contest all seats in the upcoming states polls. Reportedly, AAP is trying to ally with Chotu Vasava, supremo of Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) and MLA from the Jhagaria (Bharuch) constituency. Last week, BTP leader and Dediapada MLA Mahesh Vasavamet Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal.

Noticeably, BTP, a five-year-old party that was born out of the Bhilistan Tiger Sena outfit led by Mahesh Vasavathat campaigned for statehood for Bhilistan, holds influence in the districts of Bharuch and Narmada and in the tribal pockets of south and central Gujarat. Chotubhai Vasava, Mahesh’s father and seven-time MLA from the Jhagariya constituency, joined the party in 2017.

Noticeably, the BTP had allied with the Congress ahead of 2017 state polls just after his vote ensured Late Congress MP Ahmed Patel's re-election to Rajya Sabha.

However, Chhotubhai demanded ten seats as part of the seat-sharing arrangement in the elections, and the Congress parted with only seven seats, of which the BTP won two - Chhotubhai won Jhagadia in Bharuch, and Mahesh won from Dediapada in Narmada district.

The BTP-Congress alliance worsened during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections when Congress rejected Chhotubhai’s proposal to back him from the Bharuch Lok Sabha constituency against sitting BJP MLA Mansukh Vasava. Congress fielded a candidate instead, and Chhotubhai lost the election.

Thereafter, during the 2020 Rajya Sabha elections, the father-son duo abstained from voting. Congress had fielded two candidates, and several of its MLAs had quit ahead of the Rajya Sabha election, taking its count in the Assembly down from the 77 seats it had won in 2017 to 66.

In December 2020, the BTP formally announced the end of the alliance with Congress. “BTP has always been open to alliances with vocal parties about the tribal issue. The Congress and the BJP in Gujarat are the same and not vested in tribal issues. Currently, AAP comes across as a party that concerns itself with real causes on the ground,” Chotu Vasava told the media.

Mahesh's father, Chhotubhai Vasava, 78, is a politician from the Bhil tribe who started out in the CPI(M) and later joined the Janata Party and its latter-day versions of the Janata Dal and Janata Dal (United). Chhotubhai, who won his first Assembly election in 1990 from the Jhagadia seat, as the Janata Dal candidate, hasn’t lost an election since then.

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