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.