Lok Sabha polls: Fight for Bhil tribe hometurf in western Madhya Pradesh

The May 13 battle pits the Bhil against Bhilala tribes in a tribal-dominated constituency, with Bhils comprising 60% of voters, Bhilalas 25%, and Patliyas also holding significance.
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations

BHOPAL: It’s the Bhil tribe politicians who have mostly ruled the roost in the Ratlam-ST constituency of western Madhya Pradesh over the last 72 years. Barring 1971 and 1977, when Bhilala tribe politician Bhagirath Bhanwar won the seat as a Samyukt Socialist Party and Janta Party candidate, respectively, it’s the Bhuria tribe politicians only who have won the seat 13 times on Congress ticket and only twice as BJP candidates.

Anita Nagar Singh Chouhan, the first-time BJP candidate and wife of Madhya Pradesh minister Nagar Singh Chouhan, wants to be the second Bhilala tribe to win the Bhil-dominant seat, which has 14,000 more female voters than male voters.

Chouhan is the current Alirajpur district panchayat chairperson and has become the target of the Congress, for allegedly being the rubber stamp candidate of the minister-husband Nagar. She is contesting against Congress’ 73-year-old Bhil tribe politician and ex-Union minister Kantial Bhuria, who won the seat five times (1998, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2015) but lost in 2014 and 2019.

The contest is seen as the toughest battle among all eight seats in western and south-western Madhya Pradesh, where the polling is due in the fourth phase on Monday.

The constituency is spread across eight assembly segments (seven of them being tribal reserved) in Ratlam, Jhabua and Alirajpur districts, which border Gujarat and Rajasthan. It has seen two prominent Bhuria-surname politicians: the late Dilip Singh Bhuria and Kantilal Bhuria.

The May 13 battle is largely being seen as a battle between Bhil and Bhilala tribes in a seat where more than 75% of voters are tribals, out of which more than 60% are Bhils and Bhilala comes in with around 25% of voters, followed by Patliyas.

While Bhuria (also the former state Congress chief), whose election is managed by his first-time doctor-turned-Congress MLA son Vikrant Bhuria, is eyeing victory a sixth time largely due to the big Bhil tribe vote, he’s faced with another Bhil tribe candidate, Balu Singh Gamod, who is in the fray as a Bharatiya Adivasi Party (BAP) candidate.

Interestingly, in the adjoining Banswada seat of Rajasthan, the Congress announced support to BAP candidate, despite the grand old party’s candidate being in the fray. But in neighbouring Ratlam-ST, the BAP hasn’t reciprocated for Congress veteran Kantilal Bhuria, whose camp sniffs damage due to the BAP candidate, particularly in Sailana-ST assembly segment of Ratlam district, which has a BAP MLA Kamleshwar Dodiyar.

Dodiyar was noticeably away from campaign till recently; he rejoined for the BAP candidate two days back and has made it clear that Balu Singh Gamod is in the fray to win the battle and not just cuts into the votes of Congress and BJP.

In the 2023 assembly polls, Balu Singh as BAP candidate had finished third with 15,000-plus votes from Petlawad-ST seat, which was won by current MP minister and five-time BJP MLA Nirmala Bhuria (late Dilip Singh Bhuria’s daughter) by just 5,000-plus votes.

Jhabua-based analyst Chandrabhan Singh Bhadauria says that with Kantilal Bhuria fighting on a Congress ticket for more than two decades and his son Vikrant being a local MLA from the Jhabua-ST seat, other Congress politicians feel that the party is getting hegemonized by the Bhuria family.

"This could augur well for Bhuria,” Bhadauria maintained.

On the other hand, even the BJP candidate isn’t sitting comfortably, as many in the ruling BJP see her as a reflection of the rising clout of her “arrogant” minister-husband, Nagarsingh Chouhan. Many other politicians, particularly from Bhil tribe, including young leader Bhanu Bhuria and party’s state ST cell head KS Bhabhar (who were frontrunners for the BJP ticket) are not supportive of the BJP candidate.

Getting inputs from the ground, the party’s central and state higher ups have clearly told the senior BJP leaders, including three minister Chetan Kashyap (Ratlam), Nirmala Bhuria (Petlawad-ST) and Nagarsingh Chouhan (Alirajpur) to work in unity for party’s poll success.

Added Bhadauria, with the election now being just a day away, the Congress and BJP both are focusing on their strong assembly segments. In the 2023 state elections, the BJP won four assembly segments (Petlawad-ST, Alirajpur-ST, Ratlam City and Ratlam Rural-ST), while the Congress won Jhabua-ST, Thandla-ST and Jobat-ST segments and BAP made winning debut in Sailana-ST.

“In the 2019 elections when ex-MP government official and BJP’s Bhil tribe MLA GS Damor defeated Bhuria by over 90,000 votes, around 75% of that winning lead came from the communally sensitive and Jain community dominated Ratlam City assembly segment. The BJP is largely targeting getting leads from Ratlam City, Ratlam-Rural, Petlawad and Alirajpur. The Congress is eyeing bigger leads from Jhabua, Jobat, Thandla and Sailana. However, with the BAP is placed strongly in the fray, poll prospects of Congress getting hit at least in Sailana cannot be ruled out,” Bhadauria said.

Land of snacks

Ratlam is particularly famous for its spicy snacks, particularly the Ratlami Sev. It also houses one of the important junctions of western railway. The constituency is spread across eight assembly segments, seven of which are reserved for tribals.

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