Arvind Kejriwal to Bhupendra Patel: Two rallies, two messages from Gujarat tribal leader Vasava

In a pre-election Gujarat season marked by turns and about turns, Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) president and Dediapada MLA Mahesh Vasava set off speculation about another surprise when he shared the stage amid much bonhomie with Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel Thursday.

Vasava has not just been leading a vociferous campaign against the BJP-led Gujarat government in tribal areas, but also been in talks with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) for a possible alliance.

While Vasava insisted that he attended the event in Dediapada taluka of Narmada district with the CM as “it was a government event” and he is an MLA, he notably handed out symbolic cheques for various government schemes under the Vanbandhu programme, while flanked by ministers Naresh Patel and Kiritsinh Rana. The Vasavas – both Mahesh and father and Jhagadia MLA Chhotubhai Vasava – have always opposed references to the tribal community as ‘Vanvasis’.

Ahead of the rally with Kejriwal on May 1, their first together, Chhotubhai had said in a statement, “The BJP wants to portray all tribals as ‘Naxals’. They call us encroachers of the forests when we are not ‘vanvasis’ who have to be displaced, but owners of the forest land.” At the meeting, Mahesh lashed out at the BJP government for “shutting down over 6,000 schools” in tribal areas, while citing the example of Kejriwal’s good governance in Delhi.

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On Thursday, as Mahesh Vasava looked on, Patel enlisted the “benefits” the tribal community had received since Narendra Modi became the CM of Gujarat. Patel specifically spoke of the “development in education and healthcare in tribal areas” — the two issues that the BTP hopes to raise through any tie-up with AAP.

Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendra Patel shared the dais with BTP MLA from Dediapada, Mahesh Vasava (on CM’s left), at an event to inaugurate the Vaas Kaushalya Vardhan Kendra in Dediapada in tribal district of Narmada. (Express Photo)

Patel said: “If you (tribals) want to see how far you have come, you also have to look back in time. You have to go back 30 years ago before Narendra Modi came here… and ask yourselves, ‘Where were we back then, and where are you now?’ The answer will be in front of your eyes.”

Speaking of his presence at the event, Vasava told reporters, “I was invited to attend this event as a guest and I accepted the invite with a big heart although my name did not feature on the list of government dignitaries. I came here because I have my agenda, which is the interest of the tribal people from 14 districts. I have come here as an MLA of the people to make my petitions before the CM… There is nothing more to read into it.”

The Dediapada MLA also claimed that his visit had been fruitful, with the CM giving him a patient hearing and assuring he would look into complaints related to the area, including schemes related to water, MNREGA.

AAP leaders admitted they were baffled. A senior AAP leader told The Indian Express, “Of course, people will wonder why he attended an event of the BJP-led government when the BTP is aggressively campaigning against it.”

Defending Mahesh Vasava, BTP spokesperson Ambalal Jadav said: “Both Chhotubhai and Maheshbhai do not compromise on the interests of the people. They are elected representatives first. Their political ideology can be different, but a government event is technically not a political event. The BTP will never compromise on its core values for anything.”

Thursday’s development is set to queer talks between the BTP and AAP at a time when they are still to do much of the groundwork for an alliance. While BTP leaders say the ball is in the court of AAP, the latter is waiting for more interactions with the BTP to gauge its weight.

Gujarat AAP president Gopal Italia said he would not like to “assume” why Mahesh Vasava shared the dais with the CM. “We will discuss with Mahesh… I cannot comment until I hear his version and the thought process behind it.”

On alliance with the BTP, Italia said, “Since it is a big political decision for both the parties, we cannot just rush into things. We are at the discussion level and nothing has been finalised as elections have not yet been declared.”

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