TNT POLL CARD | Assam Elections: Congress raises pitch to regain lost ground in tea belt



Amid a strong and strategic campaign by the incumbent BJP in the run-up to the key state Assembly elections, the Congress-led ‘Grand Alliance’ or Mahajot has upped the ante, launching a counter-campaign, Assam Bachao (Save Assam), reaching out to the masses, with senior leaders making door-to-door visits and wooing the electorate ahead of the polls.

While Congress has picked the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement as a key poll plank, gaining lost ground in the State’s tea belt – the grand old party’s vote bank territory comprising at least 42 out of the 126 seats seems to be in its scheme of things, with national party leader Rahul Gandhi first promising the tea garden worker a minimum wage of Rs 365 per day, and now his sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra making “five promises” while reaching out to the workplaces and homes of tea workers.

The incumbent party, for its part, had recently hiked the daily wage of tea workers to Rs 217, mainly seen as a pre-poll gimmick, more than anything else, prompting the likes of Rahul and Priyanka to project the same as a step under compulsion, and pledge that the Congress would not only fulfil the long-pending demand but also raise it further.

In her first visit to Assam, ahead of the polls this year, Priyanka has, on behalf of her party, pledged to hike the daily wages of tea garden workers, bring a law to nullify CAA, provide five lakh government jobs, free electricity up to 200 units per household and Rs 2,000 per month to homemakers.

Not just that, the All India Congress Committee (AICC) General Secretary, in a way played to the gallery, by visiting a tea estate in Biswanath district where she plucked tea leaves along with the garden workers, mingled with tea leaf pluckers, had a casual interaction with workers while sharing sitting space on a tarpaulin on the ground, and also sipped evening tea in a worker’s house.


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“There is a visible effort by the national Congress leaders to gain lost ground in the tea belt as the party lost key seats to BJP in 2016. Sonitpur, Biswanath and Lakhimpur districts have a sizeable number of tea gardens after Tinsukia and Dibrugarh,” said a citizen of Tezpur town.

Assam currently has about 950 tea gardens across Brahmaputra and Barak Valleys.

However, the question remains as to why Priyanka did not visit Upper Assam this time, the “richest” tea belt in Assam and a zone where Congress stalwarts and influential tea community leaders such as Prithibi Majhi, and former MP, Paban Singh Ghatowar lost to “lesser-known and relatively weaker” BJP opponents, and by big margins, five years back.

Asked why the big guns of the grand old party lost, sources said that the saffron party, back in 2016, made strong inroads in the hitherto Congress bastion, “primarily due to anti-incumbency and a strategic, aggressive poll campaign by BJP involving star campaigners for the “greenhorns”.

An insider in the Congress in Upper Assam expressed “surprise” why Priyanka Gandhi Vadra did not consider Dibrugarh and Tinsukia as part of her pre-poll itinerary this time.

“From what I can fathom, it could be the ‘winnability’ factor…which appears to be more in the north bank now, than in Upper Assam,” the party insider, wishing anonymity, said.

A political analyst based in Digboi opined, “The money factor might come into the picture later, even as it won’t be a cakewalk for the incumbent party. The saffron party will be affected when it comes to anti-incumbency, but I think that the decisive factor could be (a) distribution of money to woo voters in the rural areas.”

“Having said that, the picture is still hazy as it remains to be seen how the Congress exploits the grievances of the tea workers, be it the long-pending ST demand or daily wages, and converts them to votes in favour of the grand old party…the BJP has let them down on these two major demands,” he said.


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Priyanka, during an interaction with the media, chose her words very meticulously though. “The poll battle will not be between Congress and BJP but between Assamese identity and the RSS-BJP ideology,” she said while trying to indicate that Congress would play the saviour of indigenous rights which the BJP is “trying to trample upon, through CAA”.

“Priyanka’s visit will create an impact though…All said and done, the 2021 poll contest will be interesting,” the political analyst added.

Assam will witness three-phase elections on March 27, April 1 and April 6. The main battle is between the BJP-AGP-UPPL alliance and the Congress-led ‘Grand alliance’ of seven parties, including the Hagrama Mohilary-led Bodoland People’s Front, BJP’s ally in the 2016 Assembly polls.

The alliance of two regional parties, Assam Jatiya Parishad and Raijor Dal, is apparently in the equation as well.

But sections say that the two regional parties might only disturb the Congress-led alliance’s vote share.

“Had the two parties joined the Mahajot, the latter could have been certain of winning a couple of Upper Assam seats (in Sivasagar to be particular). However, any alliance of the AJP-Raijor Dal with the Mahajot is unlikely, given the pro-minority AIUDF’s presence and the resolute stand by the regional parties not to side with parties that sway towards people of a particular religion”, an observer here said.

Nabin Chandra Keot, the central vice president of the influential Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), said that this time, “the tea garden electorate will be more conscious in terms of their precious vote. They are more informed. Both Congress and BJP had not lived up to its poll promises.”

“In regard to BJP, it has flattered to deceive….The poll manifesto in 2016 promised the three major demands - minimum wages, ST status to tea community or land Patta (the tea garden land under encroachment)….though there has been a hike of Rs 30 and of late, Rs 50 in the tea wage, the workers have not got any arrears….” Keot said.

The ACMS leader further said that over the past two decades, sectors like education and health, have remained neglected in the tea garden areas, even as the BJP promised development in 2016.

“After trusting Congress for 60 years, the tea community in Assam had voted for the BJP in 2016, hoping for poriborton (change), which remains elusive. Barring the last-minute schemes before the polls, the BJP too like Congress failed to live up to its promises. But the tea garden voters are wary and informed now…they will certainly go for conscience voting,” he added.

(Edited by Iban Mawrie)


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