“Think about the shanties you live, think about meager wages you earn after working so hard everyday and think about your children, who suffer from malaria and tuberculosis,” Rameshwar Teli tells a crowd of plantation workers at Bamunabari Tea Estate at Moran in eastern Assam. “You have since long been loyal to the Congress. But what did you get in return?”
Teli is the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate in Dibrugarh – one of the four constituencies in the “Camellia Land” of Assam, where votes of the Adivasi tea plantation workers decide the fate of the candidates in electoral battles. He has been pitted against Congress’ Pawan Singh Ghatowar, the Union minister of state (independent charge) for development of north east region.
Ghatowar himself belongs to the tea-tribe and he has won from Dibrugarh five times since 1991, primarily due to overwhelming support from the plantation workers, who have so far been a traditional vote bank of the Congress in Assam. Yet as he seeks reelection for the sixth time from his home turf, he has found a formidable challenger in Teli.
Teli, who too is a leader of plantation workers, won the Assembly polls from Duliajan – a segment of the parliamentary constituency of Dibrugarh – in 2004 and 2006, but lost in 2011, when the Congress won 41 of the 46 Assembly seats in the tea-belt of Assam. “Tea workers have been voting for the Congress for years. They repeatedly sent Ghatowar to Delhi, where he even became a Union minister. But what did he do for his own people, most of whom still have to live in dingy labour lines, with no sanitation facility or access to safe drinking water?” Teli asks.
The BJP has been targeting the Congress’ tea-tribe vote-bank in eastern Assam over the past few years. Not only Teli is giving Ghatowar a run for his money in Dibrugarh, but the BJP candidate in neighbouring Jorhat, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, another youth leader from tea community, too is posing a tough challenge to five-time Congress MP and former Union minister B K Handique.
“Days are gone when the Congress can win the tea workers’ votes only by throwing feasts with booze and doling out cash,” says Tasa.
Both Tasa and Teli repeat what the BJP president Rajnath Singh promised during a recent election rally in Tinsukia. The daily wages of the plantation workers would be raised from Rs 94 to Rs 180.