Modi’s Chaiwallah Rhetoric Has No Place For Those That Grow The Chai

Women have their tea weighed at the end of the day after harvesting in Kaziranga National Park. Steve Winter/National Geographic/Getty Images
31 March, 2016

Kicking off his party’s election campaign in Assam on 25 March, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi conjured up one of his favourite electoral idioms—that of a tea seller. In his speech in Tinsukia, Modi claimed that having been a chaiwallah himself in his youth, he shared a deep connection with the tea-producing state of Assam, whose tea he had sold. However, this connection with tea did not impel the prime minister to mention the dire condition of the state’s tea plantation workers. This prompted Brinda Karat, politburo member of the CPI(M) to ask in a rally, “Modiji, you said in a rally in Assam that you sold Assam tea and are so indebted to the state. But answer the people, what you have done for tea garden workers?”

It is hard not consider this glaring omission a sign of the prime minister’s indifference to the working class, and his propensity to glorify his own similar past—irrespective of how long back or temporary it was. As we have been told, Modi helped his father sell tea at Gujarat’s Vadnagar railway station, and later worked at a tea stall with his brother near a bus terminus. This was a story Modi regularly repeated during his campaign leading up to the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections. Modi would address huge gatherings during these rallies, and would narrate this story. Soon after, he would invoke his status as a person from a backward caste as a testimony to his humble class and caste origins. He would tell his audience: “When there is a chaiwallah on the battlefield, the nation will willingly fill our coffers.” His nationwide “Chai pe charcha” (discussions over tea) programmes were designed ostensibly to engage voters in policymaking.

Through his constant refrain of selling tea, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s then-prime ministerial nominee appeared to have discovered a novel idiom to contrast his own working-class background with the blue-blooded Rahul Gandhi, the vice-president of the Congress, who was then leading the party’s election campaign. Modi’s use of “chai” and “chaiwallah” as tropes, as many observed, was a clever way of appropriating the image of the subaltern leader of the nation.

It was not entirely unreasonable, then, to expect that while addressing a rally in Assam—the world's largest tea-growing region—the prime minister would offer some words of assurance to the exploited lot of tea plantation workers; that he would highlight their terrible and rapidly declining working and living conditions on the tea plantations. But, even as he constantly shone a light on himself as a tea-seller, Modi did not make any references to tea workers.

Like in Bengal, the tea workers in Assam have been have been constantly struggling to eke out a living. Most of the workers in the tea industry in Assam are tribal people, an already marginalised community. Classified as Other Backward Classes, the people have pushed for Scheduled Tribe status. Once granted tribal status, tea garden workers would be entitled to higher reservation in government jobs and educational institutions. In the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the BJP had promised the workers tribal status and had gotten their support, but there was no mention of the issue in this year’s speech.

Although the employment of these tea workers is governed by the 1951 Plantation Labour Act, which stipulates wages, duty hours and basic amenities such as drinking water, education and health care, the workers on the ground have been effectively denied every one of these legal rights. A report authored by the non-governmental organisation ActionAid, an international organisation that works in the areas of poverty and social injustice, states: “Since legal provisions pertaining to wages, working hours and amenities apply only to permanent labourers, tea companies have been taking on more employees as ‘casual’ labourers, sacking permanent workers for petty reasons.” The report goes on to point out that these “casual” labourers are paid far less than their permanent-employee counterparts.

A 2015 BBC investigation found the workers of a tea estate in Assam living in homes with leaking roofs, without electricity, and broken or clogged toilets. The workers informed the media team that for years, the management ignored their repeated requests to repair their homes. As malnourishment stalks the people of the area, the workers and their families are always vulnerable to diseases because of their unhygienic living conditions.

The situation has been equally critical in Bengal’s tea gardens, which employ about 6 lakh people. Between 2002 and 2007, with 17 tea gardens shutting down due to financial reasons, 1200 deaths were reported from the area with the state government calling for a Central Investigation Department probe into the matter.

As the prime minister, it is hard to imagine Modi being unaware about the gravity of the situation prevailing in the tea gardens. He insists on invoking tea, but does not attend to the workers who produce it and are in critical need of government attention and intervention.. The invocations are meant to beef up the personal image that he wants to construct. They are a part of the larger politics of symbolism Modi excels in and continues to employ, even though it is losing its sheen with each passing day.

Modi could have reached out to these workers. But that would have meant that his connection to the people in Assam or elsewhere extended beyond bolstering the myth of his origin. As events unfolding in the University of Hyderabad, and elsewhere, have shown, this government seems intent on alienating every constituency—from women to Dalits—save one. No prizes for guessing which one that is.