In the run up to the Chhattisgarh election, both the principal parties in the state, the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party, have made grand promises about representing Adivasi interests. While campaigning in the Adivasi-majority district of Surajpur on 7 November, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Congress never cared about you, never thought about your children. In contrast, the BJP has always given top priority to tribal welfare.” Modi also pointed to the BJP’s support for Droupadi Murmu, an Adivasi leader, being made the president of India, as proof of his party’s support of Adivasi communities.
On the other end of the campaign, the Congress scion Rahul Gandhi told voters near the state capital of Raipur, “We introduced PESA in Chhattisgarh for tribals, and the Congress wants every young tribal person to start dreaming and fulfilling their dreams by involving themselves in all sectors of work.” The full implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act—enacted to allow self-governance through traditional gram sabhas for people living in scheduled areas—has been a core demand of Adivasi activists in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere. Despite Gandhi and Modi’s high-minded rhetoric, the implementation of PESA in Chhattisgarh’s Adivasi regions has been poor, and both parties have weakened key laws that were created to enshrine Adivasi autonomy and accessibility to forests. Not only have both parties failed to make forest- and land-rights an election issue, laws made to protect these rights have been misused to target Adivasi Christians. This is a process that the BJP has seemingly encouraged and the Congress has failed to prevent.
Roughly thirty-four percent of Chhattisgarh is Adivasi and 29 of the state’s 90 assembly seats are reserved for Scheduled Tribe communities. One of the primary reasons for the creation of the state was a bid to better the representation of Adivasis in the region. Yet, the issues of farmers and Other Backward Classes communities in the plains often become prominent prominence in state elections. Major political parties frequently sideline the immediate issues faced by Adivasis in the northern and southern parts of the state.