Chai pe charcha: Why Assam’s tea vote is decisive for the BJP

Given that the party broke most of the promises made in 2016, its victory might come down to the tea workers, who can impact nearly 40 seats.

WrittenBy:Kishalay Bhattacharjee
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Elections being fought on communal lines is not new to India or to Assam. It started in 1946, when the Congress campaign was aimed to ensure a “secure future” for the Assamese people. At the time, the Congress was fighting the Muslim League led by Maulavi Saiyid Sir Muhammad Saadullah, who formed the government in pre-Partition Assam three times after 1937. In 1985, battle lines were drawn again following large-scale communal massacres.

2021, however, seems starker than any of the past elections, driving a wedge between communities that have been trying to heal.

Elections in a democracy are meant to act as a report card to assess the promises and performances of political parties, particularly the governing dispensation. But the assembly election this year seems, more than ever, like the Indian media’s season of personality dramas, rather than holding parties accountable.

During the 2016 Assembly election, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s poll promises for Assam, as stated in its Vision Document 2016-2025. It is perceived that the BJP owes its 2016 victory to old Congress commander Himanta Biswa Sarma, who joined the BJP in 2015. Sarma carefully cultivated a cult around him, even as the top post eludes him forever. He jumped his parent ship, the Congress, for the very same reason but here, there are no exit routes for him.

Among the promises in the vision document are the complete sealing of the Indo-Bangla border to contain immigration and laws to deal sternly with people and organisations employing infiltrators; the promise of clean and safe drinking water; implementing the Assam Accord in letter and spirit; updating the National Register of Citizens; granting Scheduled Tribe status to the “tea tribe”; upgrading the minimum wage of tea workers amongst various opportunities and facilities for this community; and addressing the state’s abject human development indices.

How did the BJP fare?

First, the international border remains as porous as ever, with 498 cases of cross-border infiltration reported in 2020 in the Parliament. The bigger and well-known, yet rarely discussed, infiltration is the Indian “holy cow”, smuggled to Bangladesh as “animals of unknown origin” every day in several thousands. The unabated smuggling of contraband through an estimated 50 corridors has been going on for decades.

Next, Himanta and the BJP’s tallest promises in Assam were the vaunted water supply scheme in Guwahati, funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency, which hasn’t taken off in a decade. More than 70 percent of Guwahati reportedly does not have access to tap water. When Himanta was with the Congress, the BJP had accused him of being a key suspect in the Louis Berger scam in the drinking water supply project.

As things stand today, the BJP government’s “vision” of 24-hour water supply is literally a pipe dream. Given that the world’s largest river system runs through the state, this remains one of Assam’s cruelest ironies.

What Himanta and his new party successfully implemented as a poll promise was the updating of the NRC, the world’s largest disenfranchisement exercise. But it backfired when the new Citizenship Amendment Act went totally against the “letter and spirit of the Assam Accord” – another of their promises. Five people died in police firing when the state erupted in protests against the Act. The Covid pandemic came as a blessing to the BJP since it entirely diverted this issue.

Assam also has the highest maternal mortality rate in the country. Its rate of crimes against women is three times higher than the national average. Assam’s ranking in Niti Aayog’s recently released Innovation Index is very poor.

But how did the regional and national media cover these issues over the last five years?

Media coverage

Here’s a chart, generated by OP Jindal University student Ashima Sharma, representing the media coverage of five broad categories in Assam between 2017 and 2020. The categories are: the BJP and election promises in Assam; BJP and Assam’s tea community; BJP and the CAA; the state’s mortality rate; and its drinking water supply.

Data generated by Ashima Sharma from OP Jindal University.

The data was collected from 90 national and regional media sources and is a collection of 16,598 news stories reported on the five categories during the three-year time period. This includes reports in national and regional newspapers, digital platforms, and broadcast media. The highest number of stories – 12,270 – were reported on “elections” in Assam. The second-largest pool of 3,226 was coverage of the BJP and the CAA. The topic reported on the least is Assam’s tea community, with only 70 stories across three years. There were 794 stories on the mortality rate and 283 on drinking water supply.

The broad themes of media coverage in the state included politics and governance, religion, and illegal immigration. The key entities invoked in news coverage were Narendra Modi, Amit Shah, Himanta Biswas Sarma, and Sarbananda Sonowal.

Now, issues like border management, handling illegal immigation, protecting “identity”, and improving road infrastructure are the usual poll promises that are not meant to be kept. Voters are familiar with this pattern and there is ennui around the “Bangladeshi” issue. The burning CAA may no longer determine the BJP’s fortunes, nor the porous fence through which infiltrators have allegedly been conspiring to change the indigenous demography.

But what may fly in the face of the BJP’s performance in the 2021 election are the promises made to the state’s 10 lakh tea plantation workers.

The tea vote

The first phase of the election on March 27 will decide 42 seats across 12 districts, stretching from Barchalla to Jonai in upper Assam and Tezpur to Sadiya in the north bank.

Until 2011, insurgency would have dominated the situation on the ground as well as the overall narrative. But since 2016, the tea workers have returned as the deciding factors. Out of 126 seats in the state assembly, the tea community can impact at least 40. In the first and decisive phase of the election, they will impact at least half the seats, and a significant portion may abandon the BJP.

The All Assam Tea Tribes Students Association has already called for a shutdown of all tea gardens on March 22 to protest the BJP’s “betrayal”. Meanwhile, the All Assam Adivasi Students Association has started a leaflet campaign asking their community to answer 10 questions. For example: Has the BJP given you Scheduled Tribe status? Have you received a daily wage of Rs 351.33? Did you get land patta [record of rights]?

The last leading question is: Why should you vote for the BJP?

The archetypal vote banks of the erstwhile Congress depended heavily on the Bengali Muslims, tea plantation workers, and the Bengali Hindus – disparagingly dubbed as “Ali-Coolie-Bangali”. The Assamese, who also voted en masse, were spared the slur. This combination split in 985 with the “Alis”, the Muslims, moving to the United Minorities Front and the Assamese to the Asom Gana Parishad. The Bengali Hindus were no longer loyal vote banks.

And as for the tea workers – who largely have their roots in the Chotanagpur region in present-day Jharkhand and parts of Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, and Odisha – shifted allegiance to the BJP. The Congress and the BJP are both wooing the tea community with a guarantee of higher daily wages, which cannot be implemented without the Indian Tea Association agreeing to it. The BJP’s divisive campaign does not work in the tea gardens, and the party is acutely aware of it. So, it’s started buying them with money instead.

In February, union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman arrived with a gift for the tea plantation workers, called Chah Bagichar Dhan Puraskar Mela. Rs 3,000 was transferred to each bank account of over 7.46 lakh tea workers. And this is not the firm time: two such transfers of Rs 2,500 were made earlier. The government has spent Rs 584 crore so far under the scheme; money well spent if they get the votes.

Given that tea is such an emotive drink for the prime minister, he could have kept his word on such long-standing and legitimate demands, instead of turning them into the same old “vote bank”. This was his opportunity for a real chai pe charcha.

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article image‘History is repeating itself’: Gaurav Gogoi predicts a Congress comeback in Assam


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