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Tea in Indian politics

By being undiplomatic in his language in a talk he delivered at a recent All India Congress Committee session Mani Shankar Ayer, a Cambridge graduate, a former career diplomat and a Tamil Brahmin to boot brought chai (tea) back into politics. Ayer promised to the gathering that the BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi would never become prime minister of the country in the 21st Century. And, he went on to add, “But if he wants to distribute tea here, we will find a place for him."

The reference was to Modi’s background. A family of modest means belonging to Other Backward Castes (OBC), his father used to run an ordinary tea stall and Modi in his childhood used to carry tea in a kettle to the Vadnagar Railway Station in Gujarat to serve it to passengers as the trains steamed in. This was mocking the socio-economic background of an opposition candidate at its worst. Ours is a civilised country and none ordinarily would mock the lowly origin of a candidate. But Mani Shankar Ayer is different. Born with a silver spoon, having had the best of education in India and abroad and having worked as a diplomat even in most dangerous of places like Pakistan he had no qualms about making such an undiplomatic, insensitive, arrogant,  scornful and contemptuous statement. No wonder, he was roundly criticised by all right-thinking people and even the Congress Party distanced itself from the statement. The Congress Vice President, the Gandhi scion, even expressed unhappiness about it at a public meeting.

Ayer’s stupid jibe at Modi boomeranged with an uncanny force and the Congress was put on the back foot. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was quick to make use of the deprecatory comment and capitalise on it and derived miles of advantage from it. Hundreds of Modi or “NaMo” (short for Narendra Modi) Tea Stalls came up in the country with photographs of Modi on their signboards. People flocked to these tea stalls as much for showing support for him as for fun. In the rural towns and settlements these became centres of attraction and people would visit them for taking a hot cup of sugary overly boiled tea and indulge in some spicy political gossip. Not only indicative of the extent of support for the Party and for Modi, these stalls became an embarrassment for the ruling Party and its aspirants who were in the electoral fray.

This was not all. BJP organised what came to be known as “chai pe charcha” (discussions over tea) at many tea stalls and ordinary, no-frills restaurants. The idea rapidly caught on and “chai pe charcha” spread virtually all over the country. Even Modi participated in these discussions. One such “charcha” was held in Rajasthan that had 67 locations in the state connected with video links for question-and-answer session - a kind of teleconferencing. It became a perfect vehicle for public-connect for the BJP, striking the right chord with the people. Modi appeared on giant screens fitted in several tea stalls and was connected live with the people and entered into public discourses with them expanding his views on several vital issues, such as empowerment of women. In an event organised in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, relayed live at around 1000 tea stalls Modi appeared on huge screens with a cup of tea in hand answering questions and expatiating on accountability in governance. These events got favourable responses from the press in the country as well as abroad. The Washington Post and the New York Times covered them and the French press made an unkind cut on Ayer by saying that in today’s world arrogance born out of lineage is a distinct disadvantage. Not to be left behind, the media houses too sent their news anchors to restaurants to discuss and ascertain the views of young voters on the main contenders.

While Ayer, with his expression of disdain for Modi, handed on a platter to the latter a vehicle for electoral propaganda, he, perhaps, unwittingly brought “tea” back into reckoning in politics. Tea has for long been associated with politics and to trace that one has to travel more than a couple of centuries back in time. Resistance against Britain’s power to tax colonies in America as evidenced by the Tea Act of 1773 gave birth to the Boston Tea Party, inducing a wave of resistance throughout the colonies against tax imposed on tea by the British Parliament. The Act also had its origin in Parliament’s effort to rescue the financially weakened East India Company, a victim of smuggling into America of cheaper Dutch tea, so as to continue benefiting from the company’s valuable position in India.

The hard-line taken by the British Government against the protesters known as Colonists, also called Whigs and sometimes Sons of Liberty, to emphasise the authority of the Mother Government to impose taxes on people in the colonies despite being unrepresented in the British Parliament gave rise to the movement for rejecting the tea that used to be imported from England. In May 1773 the Colonists, disguised as American Mohawk Indians, entered the ship berthed at Boston ferrying tea from India via Britain and dumped the entire consignment into the sea. It signified culmination of resistance against the Tea Act in the entire British America. The stiff resistance against Britain’s rigid and uncompromising attitude bore the seeds of the American Revolution and eventually became the precursor of the American War of Independence.

Much later, in our own times, as late as 2009, once again we heard of The Tea Party protests. The iconic events of 1773 have been used on several occasions to describe anti-tax movements as “Tea Party” movements. But the Tea Party protests of the last decade were ones that were mostly of fiscally conservative and socio-political nature that engulfed the United States. The protests were against several federal laws that were perceived to have sought to enlarge the sphere of influence of the Federal Government. These were coordinated throughout the nation with a libertarian philosophy against what the members of the Tea Party believed to be attempts of President Obama to create a “Big Government” that they thought would tread on people’s liberty. Some of them even later went so far as to call him a “Lefty”. The Tea Party came to wield such power that it had an official nominee of the Republican Party defeated in the 2010 Congressional elections for he was not enough of a libertarian.

There has also been unlikely fallout of Ayer’s off-hand and arrogant dig at Modi. Looking at the reaction and the support Modi received other candidates from the same caste-group or deprived sections shed their diffidence and broadcast their humble origins. Thus “Paanwalas” and “Chawlwallas” came out in the open seeking voters’ support, a phenomenon (though not quite a schism yet) that was unfortunately born out of Ayer’s derisive remark.

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