High Stakes for BJP and Congress in the Fragrant Tea Gardens of Upper Assam

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File photo of tea gardens in Assam. Credit: Akarsk Simha flickr cc

File photo of tea gardens in Assam. Credit: Akarsk Simha flickr cc

There is a common saying among Assamese that you know you are in upper Assam by merely smelling the air.

With roughly 800 tea gardens spread across the seven upper Assam districts of Jorhat, Golaghat, Sivsagar, Dibrugarh, Tinsukia, Lakhimpur and Dhemaji, the robust aroma of freshly plucked tea leaves is difficult to escape. Driving on the national highways 37 and 39, the view from the car window is of the rambling tea estates.

These estates are the main sources of employment for the State’s tea tribe. Covering both the tea garden workers, ex-workers and their families living inside or around these estates, they add up to over 31 lakh, or nearly 17 per cent of the state’s population. In upper Assam, this is the largest chunk of decisive votes. No wonder then, the community — which otherwise live in poor conditions with one of the lowest human indices – suddenly gains focus whenever the state faces an election.

In these assembly polls too — to be held in these districts in the first phase on April 4 — the tribe is at the centre of election analyses, in the media and among political parties. Their vote counts in all the 34 constituencies of upper Assam which means they hold the key to the success of the major contenders, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, in arguably the most intense elections in the state in some time. In 2014, BJP managed to win seven of the 14 Parliamentary seats in the State primarily because this tribe stamped on the Lotus in upper Assam instead of the Hand.

The question therefore is: Will the BJP be able to repeat its magic here this time too to be able to ensure smooth sailing in the upper Assam bloc? Has the party been able to retain this voter base nearly two years after the general elections?

Ask state BJP leaders this question and they will point to the party’s success in the February 2015 urban bodies’ elections to drive home the point that its popularity has not diminished. But that mandate doesn’t say much about the BJP’s penetration in the rural and tea areas, which are crucial in these elections. The party may not admit it but is certainly not taking a victory on that scale for granted. Not for nothing did the Prime Minister and the best known face of the BJP, Narendra Modi, hold five rallies in upper Assam. There possibly was more to the rhetoric that Modi is famous for when he said in Tinsukia that as a tea-seller, he had sold Assam tea.

Traditionally with Congress

The tea tribe has been traditionally going with the Congress in every election, barring that strong swing seen in 2014 which surprised both the Congress and its opponents. So, will the coming polls see their ghar wapsi to the Congress?

Second, in every assembly election int he country that BJP has faced after its 2014 magical win riding on the ‘Modi wave’, the party has lost 4 to 5 percent of its vote share. In that Lok Sabha polls, BJP garnered 37 per cent of the State’s votes while the Congress got 30 per cent. While BJP scored better than the 2009 polls in the two other parts of Assam – lower Assam and the Barak Valley — in upper Assam, its win was the most impressive with the vote share spiralling from 13 per cent in 2009 to a whopping 45 per cent. Will the pattern of diminishing vote share also be visible in the Assam elections too?

Travelling through the tea areas of upper Assam in search of possible signs that may give away the mood of the community in this election season, it becomes apparent that both the parties have utilised their big guns in this vital region. Apart from the PM, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, BJP President Amit Shah and state BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma and from the Congress side party president Sonia Gandhi, vice president Rahul Gandhi and State Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi, have all held rallies here.

On March 28, Amit Shah, addressing a rally in Dhokuakhana in Lakhimpur district, tried to grab voter attention by highlighting the need to throw out the Gogoi Government to save the state from illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

On March 30, Rajnath Singh, canvassing in Mahmora, Thowra and Moran constituencies of Dibrugarh district, highlighted his Government’s intention to seal the Indo-Bangladesh border, end militancy, ensure security of common people, end the fake currency racket.

The BJP may criticise Gogoi for ‘suta-kambal-athua politics’ (meaning his government gives free doles of weaving thread, blankets and mosquito nets to the poor), but the party knows that these populist schemes have a lot of takers. To address that set of voters, Himanta Biswa Sarma promised free two-wheelers to school and college going girls if the party comes to power in Assam. (Gogoi Government gives free bicycles to school going girls).

Yet, it was clear that not just Shah, Singh and Sarma but even Modi too didn’t touch upon topics that concern the tea tribe urgently. Though the BJP-led NDA Government at the Centre announced formation of a committee to advise if the tea tribe can be accommodated in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) list, two separate issues were brought up in all conversations that this correspondent had among locals.

No more free rations

The first concerns the termination of free rations to tea garden workers after the Modi Government came to power at the Centre. Secondly, the long pending demand of the workers to raise their minimum daily wage from Rs.130 to Rs 250-300 has not been fulfilled.

Trailokya Keot, assistant secretary, Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ASMS), was categorical, “Our people are angry with the Union Labour Ministry on these two issues.” Keot, who also edits the weekly newspaper Sah Mazdoor, from ACMS headquarters Dibrugarh, focussed on these issues on its front page recently.

The credit of highlighting these issues to the tea garden voters must go to the Congress, with help from ASMS which is affiliated to INTUC, controlled by the party. Congress’s line of campaign in the tea belt in these elections is to focus voter attention on Modi Government’s suspension of bulk supply of food grains given through the Food Corporation of India to the tea industry. This supply is used by the industry to provide highly subsidised ration to the workers. The party is not letting the voter forget that ACMS has moved the court to get that order suspended.

Also, besides seeking from the Modi Government a Rs. 5,568.80 crore special package the overall socio-economic development of the tea tribe, the Gogoi Government – in a shrewd move — notified a draft proposal to enhance the minimum wage for both temporary and permanent tea plantation workers to Rs 177.19 apart from any fringe benefit they and their dependents get.

Along with it, the Congress Government also announced three new schemes for the tribe – the Bagan Ghar Scheme under which every tea garden worker’s family will be provided land and financial assistance to construct a dwelling; Bagan Jal scheme to provide drinking water in the labour lines, and the Bagan Bus Scheme to provide public bus service to the school and college going children of the tea garden workers. Gogoi also wrote to the Centre seeking amendment of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.

To show some action on the ground, the State Government also distributed land pattas to both the present workers and the families of ex-workers. “As per the policy, nearly 3000 families were given land papers in the first phase,” said an ACMS member in Sepon tea estate, located between Sivsagar and Dibrugarh districts.

“These issues will certainly help Congress in upper Assam. ACMS is the country oldest and largest trade union, it has control over most gardens,” pointed out a Dibrugarh-based journalist well entrenched in politics of the region.

As per her party’s script, Sonia Gandhi, addressing a public rally In Amguri in Sivsagar district a day after Singh and Sarma’s visits, highlighted these issues. “The country wakes up with Assam tea. The Prime Minister often appreciates Assam tea and says that he used to sell Assam tea. However, he is not aware of the pathetic condition of the tea garden workers in Assam. He suspended 12 schemes meant for poor, one of which has stopped free ration received by the tea garden workers during our Government. The tea garden workers in Assam are still wondering as to when the ‘achche din’ (good days) will come in their lives,” Gandhi said. A day later, canvassing for the Digboi party candidate Gautam Dhanowar (the candidate is from the tea garden community), Rahul Gandhi also hammered home the ration issue.

Congress though has not busied itself with just highlighting these issues in election rallies and announcing policies. It also convinced ACMS president and a veteran Congress leader Pawan Singh Ghatowar, (his wife Jibantara Ghatowar is the present Congress MLA), to contest on the party ticket from the Moran constituency. A five-time Lok Sabha member of the Congress from Dibrugarh and a former Union Minister, Ghatowar is now being projected as a senior leader who could take over the party’s reins from Gogoi in the years to come, thus giving the hope to the community that it might get its first chief minister.

“As you know BJP has no traditional base in Assam, particularly in the tea tribe. In 2014, it won by taking advantage of inner party squabbling in Congress. BJP leaders from the community, Rameshwar Teli and Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, brought many Congress workers to covertly work for BJP in that election. But this time, Congress is vigilant, so BJP knows it will not be able to get what it got in 2014,” says a local leader of the Asom Gana Parishad (AGP), which is a BJP ally.

Though Congress is conscious of keeping its cadre together this time, BJP is hoping another factor will work for it in the labour lines. It is the growing penetration of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the tea estate areas.

Inroads by RSS among tea workers

Said well-known North East commentator Kishalaya Bhattacharjee, “The BJP’s inroads into the tea garden community is not just because of infighting in Congress. It is also because of some groundwork of organisations like the RSS which have been working among the community over the years.”

Not that Congress is bereft of that knowledge. Rahul Gandhi, in his Digboi speech, did highlight it, “BJP is controlled by the RSS, and if they win here, Assam will be controlled from Nagpur (meaning the RSS headquarters). They will ensure your history, culture, language, everything is erased and replaced by what they believe is Indian culture.”

Some observers feel that many voters have moved away from the Congress. “Also, if you talk about the tea garden community in particular, there is a fatigue factor in ACMS, particularly among the youth which comprises 40 per cent of that community’s voters. This is the aspirational class, they want to educate themselves, compete for jobs, so they want a change of Government this time. They are unlikely to go with Congress yet again,” says Nani Gopal Mahanta, Gauhati University Political Science professor and well-known political commentator.

The single most advantage that the poll partners BJP and AGP are hoping to ride on this election is the strong anti-incumbency factor, given that Gogoi has ruled the state for 15 years.

“Quite a few opinion polls results have come out. There is no doubt that many people want a change of guard after 15 years of Congress rule. So BJP will certainly benefit from it but this time, till the counting of votes is done, it can’t be said for sure who will be ahead of whom, particularly in the tea garden areas. Also, if Gogoi is facing anti-incumbency, so is BJP’s partner Bodo People’s Front (BDF, which has been ruling the Bodo Territorial Autonomous Council since 2005) and AGP is a divided house,” said Bhattacharjee.