“One party has abandoned us like Sita and the other has disrobed us like Draupadi,” says Rajesh Hajjam, a tea garden worker in Silchar, Assam.
Hajjam is among the 2.6 lakh-odd Hindi speaking tea estate workers, who would play a decisive role in the upcoming
Lok Sabha elections for the Silchar Constituency, traditionally a Congress stronghold.
This time around,
the ruling BJP is making a strong bid to wrest the seat from incumbent Sushmita Dev, daughter of veteran Congress leader & former Union Minister late Santosh Mohan Dev. Sushmita was among the 45 odd MPs to get elected in 2014 when the Modi Tsunami hit the country. The saffron party has fielded a young medico Dr Rajdeep Roy, whose father, a former legislator was among the founders of BJP (or its erstwhile Avatar Jan Sangh) in the North Eastern state and continued to be remembered among the old timers for his social service. BJP Hit Ground Running
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, chief minister Sarbananda Sonowal and many state Ministers including Himanta Biswa Sarma have already addressed huge gatherings, led padyatras and conducted roadshows in and around the constituency in support of the newcomer whereas on the other side, Congress General Secretary in charge of Eastern Uttar Pradesh Priyanka Gandhi Vadra herself specially flew down to conduct a roadshow for Dev, in her first ever campaign outside of UP.
The Congress is heavily banking on the support of the decisive 4.5 lakh Muslim voters while BJP is making all out efforts to woo the rest in this predominantly Bangla speaking constituency.
Another distinguishing factor about this constituency is that unlike the rest of the North East, where many organisations have expressed reservations about the BJP-led NDA Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to change the very definition of illegal migrants, there is huge support for the same in Silchar among the non-Muslims.
The Bill, introduced in the Lok Sabha on July 15, 2016, seeks to amend the Citizenship Act, 1955 to provide citizenship to illegal migrants, from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, who are of Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian extraction. The Bill also seeks to reduce the requirement of 11 years of continuous stay in the country to six years to obtain citizenship by naturalisation.
Notwithstanding opposition to the move from friends and foes alike, BJP is sticking its neck out on the issue saying it had promised to grant citizenship to Hindus persecuted in the neighbouring countries during the 2014 General Election. In an apparent move to woo the majority community across the country, in its election manifesto, the BJP had promised to welcome Hindu refugees and give shelter to them.
BJP's ally Asom Gana Parishad had termed the Bill as “anti-Assam” and except for the Barak Valley, which includes the Silchar constituency, the state has seen widespread protests. The opponents of the Bill across the North East allege the move would make Assam a “dumping ground for Hindu Bangladeshis”.
But for the saffron party, it could prove to be the game changer among the largely immigrant Bengali speaking Hindu population in Silchar. Both the candidates represent this community. BJP is citing the Congress opposition to the Bill to target the sitting MP.
Both the parties are also trying to woo the Hindi speaking Tea Garden workers, who constitute the third largest vote bank after the Muslims and Bengali speaking Hindus. While the Indian National Trade Union Congress affiliated to the Congress party had held sway over this segment, the Bharatiya Chai Mazdoor Sangh affiliated to the RSS trade union wing Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh has made deep inroads in the recent years.
The Amenities Factor
Many families who got their power connection and toilets for the first time in the last five years have shifted their loyalties to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Yes, we had to pay the line man about Rs 1500 to get the connection fast but then we cannot blame Modiji for that. Earlier even on payment, we would not get a power connection,” said Raju Lohar. Many also have benefited from the Central Government’s Ujjwala Yojana. Even the BJP Government in the state had raised their daily wages by Rs 30/- but they are getting only Rs 15/- that too lately.
There are other problems for which they are seeking redressal. Free medicines are coming to the area under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) but in the absence of any doctor visiting them and dispensing them, the drugs are being destroyed routinely after expiry date. Piped water still remains a distant dream. They claim the Government is making available all provisions including chlorine tablets and filters for providing clean water but the managements of the estates are not doing the needful at their end. Labour Inspectors or Health Inspectors are not visiting the gardens to check whether the Government’s policies and facilities are being implemented. Being a doctor himself, they expect BJP candidate Dr Rajdeep Roy to do the needful if elected. Their long pending grievance which no party has paid heed to so far is that even seven decades after independence, the land titles are not in their name. We have houses but land belongs to the companies and thus we remain at their mercy forever, he said.
A former school teacher and unionist Ashok Verma says, “for this time, the mood in tea gardens is for Modi but if they do not fulfil their promises, then we will teach them a lesson in 2021 (Assembly Polls).”
Indeed, in a democracy, the enlightened electorate has the remote or the power of the vote in its hands.
KG Suresh is a senior journalist and former Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication.