By Sushanta Talukdar
In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, spectacular performance of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in traditional Congress bastion among the tea tribes in Assam created ripples in the political circle with poll pundits speculating that BJP’s inroads among these marginalised communities would dim the chances of the Congress retaining power for the fourth consecutive term in the state.
The tea tribes play the deciding role in about 35 seats in 126-member Assam assembly. In 2011 Assembly polls, the BJP won only one of these seats while the Congress won 26. In 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the political scene reversed and 26 of these assembly segments were among 69 assembly segments in which BJP candidates polled highest votes.
In this assembly polls slated for 4 and 11 April, the BJP hopes to consolidate on its gains among the tea tribes relying heavily on popularity of its two leaders representing these communities -- Lok Sabha MP from Dibrugarh Rameswar Teli, and party MP from Jorhat Kamakhya Prasad Tasa. The BJP has fielded Tasa against the incumbent Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi in Titabor assembly constituency.
Official statistics say that the tea tribes comprising of tea garden workers and ex-garden workers scattered in 793 registered tea gardens across the Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys account for 17 percent of the state’s total population of 31,169,272.
During 2014 Lok Sabha polls, the Congress was grappling with dissidence with most of the party legislators representing the tea tribes joining the rebellion against Gogoi. The BJP, on the other hand, rode a popular Modi-wave and took advantage of confusion prevailing among Congress rank and file over dissidence against Gogoi, to effectively take the campaign in tea garden areas that the condition of tea tribe communities was still miserable and they remained deprived from basic necessities as successive Congress governments in the state and the Centre failed to take any welfare measures for them and only treated them as a vote-bank to remain in power.
Congress spin doctors have whipped up the campaign that former Union minister Paban Singh Ghatowar would be a likely successor of Gogoi and Assam would get the first chief minister from among the tea tribes in the event the ruling party retains power. Ghatowar is also the president of the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha(ACMS), the largest and the oldest trade union of the country affiliated to the Congress-controlled INTUC. Ghatowar, who lost to Teli in 2014, is contesting from Moran assembly constituency currently held by his wife Jibantara Ghatowar.
The Congress has been focussing on certain key campaign issues to win back the support of the tea tribes. It has taken the campaign among the tea tribes that the Narendra Modi-led BJP government had suspended bulk supply of additional quota of food grains for the tea industry that is required for providing subsidised ration to tea garden workers but the Congress-controlled ACMS moved the court to get the order suspended by the Gauhati High Court.
Under the system, introduced way back in 1946, Assam government gives sub-allocation of 7,600 MT of rice and 5,000 MT of wheat through Food Corporation of India to the tea garden owners for providing subsidised rice and wheat at 50 to 55 paise a kilogram.
The 190-years old Assam tea industry employs about five lakh permanent workers and about six lakh temporary workers, with about 50 percent of them women. The state accounts for more than half of the country’s total tea production.
As part of various measures to woo these voters, Gogoi government notified the draft proposal for enhancing the minimum rates of wages of plantation workers in the tea estates to Rs 177.19 for both permanent and temporary workers, exclusive of any fringe benefits enjoyed by workers and their dependents. It also launched three new schemes namely, the chief minister’s Bagan Ghar Scheme under which every tea garden worker family will be provided land and financial assistance for construction of dwelling houses; the chief minister’s Bagan Jal scheme for providing drinking water, and the chief minister’s Bagan Bus Scheme for providing public bus service facilities for the students of the tea garden workers. Gogoi also wrote to Modi seeking a special package of Rs 5,568.80 crore for the over-all socio-economic development of the tea garden workers and for amendment of the Plantation Labour Act 1951. Gogoi government also started distribution of land pattas to tea garden workers and ex-garden workers’ families and in the first phase 2700 families were covered.
Both the Congress and the BJP have been promising Scheduled Tribe status to tea tribes along with five other communities—Koch-Rajbangshis, Tai-Ahoms, Morans, Chutias and Mataks—and two parties have been blaming each other for non-inclusion of these six communities in the ST list and have made it a major poll plank.
Poll outcome in this elections will be a critical indicator to ascertain whether the vote shift among the tea tribes towards the BJP in 2014 was temporary in nature which the Congress can hope to reverse though a slew of welfare measures or if the BJP had caused a permanent dent in the Congress strongholds.
The author is Editor, nezine.com. Views are personal.