With assembly elections due in November, tribals in Madhya Pradesh seem to be under the spotlight with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader LK Advani choosing Jabalpur to launch his 'sankalp yatra' and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh following two days later with a visit to Jhabua.
While Advani launched his campaign tour from the tribal dominated Jabalpur Feb 6, Manmohan Singh will lay the foundation stone of a new rail line in Jhabua district Feb 8.
Tribals dominate both Jhabua and Jabalpur regions. They play a decisive role in 91 of the state's 230 assembly constituencies. Of these, 41 are reserved for the community.
Tribals would play an even more significant role if the delimitation of constituencies takes place before the polls. Under the new system, the number of tribal seats would go up.
According to experts, the significance of the tribal vote was demonstrated in the 2003 assembly polls at Nimar, Malwa, Mahakaushal and Vindhya regions. The BJP swung 15 per cent of the tribal votes away from the Congress and won three-fourths of the tribal seats.
While the BJP has 38 tribal legislators and four tribals MPs, the Congress has only two tribal MLAs and one tribal MP.
"But much water has flown down the Narmada - the lifeline of Madhya Pradesh - since then. Tribals appear to have disassociated from the BJP as indicated during the Khargone Lok Sabha and Sanver and Lanjhi assembly by-polls which the BJP lost," said Brijmohan Shrivastava, the state Congress spokesperson.
The role of the Gondwana Ganatantra Party (GGP), which has its strength in the tribal areas of the Mahakoshal region, will also be crucial.
Both the BJP and the Congress are watching out for GGP. If the Gonds in the Mahakoshal region, where 60 per cent of the voters are tribals, vote in bulk for GGP, the electoral prospects of the two mainstream parties could be dented.