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How father-son rift in tribal party BTP could affect poll prospects of major players in Gujarat

BTP chief Mahesh Vasava has declared candidature from 'safe seat' Jhagadia, a seat his father Chhotubhai won 7 times. AAP, meanwhile, has backed former BTP leader in Dediapada.

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New Delhi: Amid the high-octane campaign ahead of assembly elections in Gujarat, a father-son tussle is exposing the fissures within a small political outfit that wields some influence in the state’s tribal belt.

The first salvo was fired by the son, Mahesh Vasava, who filed nomination papers as the Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) candidate from Jhagadia — a seat held by his father and BTP patriarch Chhotubhai Vasava, who responded by filing nomination papers as an independent from the same constituency.

With 17 November being the last day for withdrawal of candidature, there is much speculation in Jhagadia on whether one of the two will blink, or whether this fight will be a father-son contest come polling day (1 December).

While on the one hand, political observers and analysts say a split within the BTP may be advantageous to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), some are pointing fingers at the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) — which entered into a brief alliance with BTP earlier this year — for having triggered the father-son tussle by ‘poaching’ a close aide of Chhotubhai.

This move by the Arvind Kejriwal-led party, striving to make inroads in Gujarat, is what apparently forced Mahesh to vacate his assembly constituency and look for a safer seat.

The two-time MLA from Dediapada settled for Jhagadia in Bharuch district, a seat his father has held for the past seven terms. As president of the party, Mahesh (55) declared himself the BTP’s official candidate from the seat, leaving his 77-year-old father out in the cold.

“Everyone has the freedom to contest from wherever they want. There is still some time left for withdrawal. Who knows what will happen and whether it is our strategy? I am the coordinator of the party and will continue to work for it. My son and I are on talking terms,” Chhotubhai Vasava told ThePrint Wednesday.

He said his aim was to take on the BJP which had “damaged the country”.

ThePrint reached Mahesh Vasava through calls and messages but he was not available for comment. This report will be updated when a response is received.

“Chhotubhai has won the seat seven times in a row since 1990. No one would have ever thought he would have to contest as an Independent from this seat. But when his son kept the father in the dark, Chhotubhai out-manoeuvred him by deciding to contest as an Independent,” said a BTP leader aligned with Chhotubhai.

“Jhagadia is such an assembly in Gujarat where BJP has never been able to win, but the situation in the 2022 elections has become very different. There is still no clarity on who will end up benefiting from this fight between the father and son — BJP, Congress or AAP,” the BTP leader added. 

For now, the battle for Jhagadia is looking like a five-way contest between BJP’s Riteshbhai Vasava, Congress’s Fatehsinh Vasava, AAP’s Urmila Bhagat, and the BTP father-son duo.

Also Read: Leader who saved Morbi victims, cricketer Jadeja’s wife among BJP’s nominees for Gujarat polls

BTP & tribal vote in Gujarat

In Gujarat, which has one of the highest tribal populations across the country in terms of absolute numbers, 27 seats in the 182-member Legislative Assembly are reserved for Scheduled Tribes (STs). The Congress won 16 of the 27 seats in 2017, the BJP won eight and the BTP two, while one was won by an Independent. In 2012, the Congress won 16 of those seats, the BJP 10 and the Janata Dal (United) one.

According to the 2011 Census, about 15 per cent of the state’s total population, mainly concentrated in its eastern districts bordering Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, identifies as tribal. Banaskantha, Dahod, Panchmahals, Chhota Udepur, and Narmada are some of the districts in Gujarat with sizable tribal populations. 

Besides the 27 reserved seats where the tribal vote seals a candidate’s fate, in 31 other assembly constituencies, the estimated tribal population is over 30 per cent. This is chiefly why the tribal vote is the most sought-after among BJP, the Congress and now, the AAP. 

The ruling BJP, which has been in power in Gujarat since 1995 and is now hoping to retain its bastion with a wider margin, has already announced several programmes to woo the tribal community. To that end, Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a massive outreach exercise in Rajasthan just this month and Gujarat’s tribal belt was the focus of the BJP’s five-legged Gaurav Yatra in the poll-bound state.

The BTP, which claims to represent the interests of tribal voters, was founded in 2017 by son Mahesh and father Chhotubhai, who was once the lone MLA of JD(U) in Gujarat.

Apart from the 2017 pre-poll alliance, Chhotubhai stood with the Congress on two other occasions — the 2017 Rajya Sabha biennial polls when then BJP chief Amit Shah left no stone unturned to ensure the late Congress leader Ahmed Patel’s defeat in Gujarat, and during Congress MLA Sachin Pilot’s rebellion against CM Ashok Gehlot in 2020 that threatened to dislodge the Congress government in Rajasthan where the BTP has two MLAs.

The party joined hands with the AAP in May this year but the alliance lasted only till September when Chhotubhai called it quits, accusing the AAP of ‘damaging’ BTP’s poll prospects and of trying to field BTP candidates on the AAP symbol.

AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal with BTP founder Chhotubhai Vasava in Bharuch on 1 May, 2022 | ANI
AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal with BTP founder Chhotubhai Vasava in Bharuch on 1 May, 2022 | ANI

Earlier this month, Chhotubhai announced that BTP had entered into an alliance with the JD(U) for the Gujarat polls — a claim his son Mahesh denied the very next day.

The BTP derives a significant part of its electoral strength from Bhils, a sect of tribals living mainly in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The consolidation of Bhils — among the largest Adivasi groups in the country — has been giving both the Congress and BJP sleepless nights in Gujarat and Rajasthan.

“In 2017, Congress entered into an alliance with us and we fought on six seats and won two. But because we did not contest several others which had sizable tribal votes, we ended up helping Congress win those seats and it managed to get 77. So far, BTP has declared candidates on 18 seats for the first phase and more will be declared for the second phase,” said Amba Lal Jadhav, vice-president of BTP Gujarat unit.

AAP factor & battle for Dediapada

Jayesh Shah, a social scientist who was formerly with the Vadodara-based non-profit Centre for Culture and Development, is of the view that the BTP may act as a ‘vote-cutter’, eventually helping the BJP shore up its numbers.

“The fact that there is no alliance between the Congress and the BTP will end up helping the BJP in some ways. In 2017, of the 27 seats reserved for tribals, Congress won 16, the BJP nine and the BTP two. But I will not be surprised if BJP ends up winning around 18-20 (this time),” said Shah.

On the father-son contest in Jhagadia, Shah told ThePrint that the “AAP factor” will be crucial. He explained that the AAP’s alliance with the BTP was short-lived because the former fielded several BTP turncoats, including Dr Praful Vasava from Nandod and Chaitar Vasava, former president of BTP’s Narmada district unit, from Dediapada — the seat Chotubhai’s son Mahesh won in 2017.

“However, as AAP fielded Chaitar Vasava from Dediapada, who is a strong candidate and was earlier with BTP, Mahesh was not sure about winning this seat, so he declared himself as the candidate for his father’s seat. This is how the confrontation started,” said another BTP leader.

“What made matters worse was that he did not even consult his father and even justified it by saying that Chhotubhai had decided to opt out due to health reasons.”

Chhotubhai Vasava filing nomination from Jhagadia on 14 November, 2022 | Twitter @Chhotu_Vasava
Chhotubhai Vasava filing nomination from Jhagadia on 14 November, 2022 | Twitter @Chhotu_Vasava

The leader further explained that Chaitar Vasava, a close confidant of Chhotubhai, had played a “crucial role” in Mahesh’s victory from Dediapada in 2017. “However, after BTP severed ties with AAP, Chaitar decided to join Kejriwal’s party. Chaitar, who has good grassroots connect, has been fielded by AAP from Dediapada. Sensing a tough fight, Mahesh decided to change his seat and being the president (of BTP), he had the mandate to finalise the name and chose a safe seat, one held by his father.” 

Chaitar, he said, worked closely with AAP during its brief alliance with BTP, and was rewarded for leaving the Vasava father-son duo’s party post the falling-out.

Confident of his victory, Chaitar told ThePrint: “More than 45,000 people came for the nomination process. This shows the trust people have in me and the AAP. We are fighting for the rights of the tribal people. I was with the BTP earlier and Mahesh had won (in 2017) due to our hard work.” 

BTP leader Amba Lal Jadhav said the party is ‘persuading’ Mahesh not to contest the polls from Jhagadia with the last day for withdrawal around the corner. If the father and son don’t bury the hatchet, Jadhav says many like him will end up supporting Chhotubhai.

“Chhotubhai is the co-founder and coordinator of the party, but his son is the president. Chhotubhai was the organisation president of the Gujarat BTP. In fact, the party was formed by Mahesh only in 2017. However, it is because of the popularity of Chhotubhai that people supported it and we won several seats in many states. Unke naam se hi party chalti hai (the party runs in his name),” he said.

Asked if AAP’s jump into the fray will end up helping the BJP, Jadhav said it may, instead, hurt the BJP and will definitely dent the Congress’ gains. “AAP is not a factor. They will end up getting 5-7 per cent votes but they are just creating a hawaa (air). On the ground, they are nowhere,” said Jadhav.

A central Congress leader who did not wish to be named pointed out that Chhotubhai served as the sole JD(U) MLA until he sided with Sharad Yadav after the split in Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s party.

“BJP has always ignored the concerns of the tribal people and merely uses them for elections. They are simply anti-tribal. Congress has always worked for the rights of the tribal people. Jal, jungle, zameen (water, jungle and land) is our mantra as far as tribal people are concerned and we are confident of getting their support this time too,” said Manish Doshi, chief spokesperson of Gujarat Congress.

Doshi added that it is now for the BTP to clarify whether it stands with the tribal people or whether its “internal conflict” is meant to “help the BJP”.

Elections to Gujarat’s Legislative Assembly will be held in two phases on 1 and 5 December with the counting of votes on 8 December.

(Edited by Amrtansh Arora)

Also Read: Booth-level armies to ABC of polling centres — Congress’ ‘silent’ campaign in Gujarat


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