BJP’s ‘Chai pe Charcha’ aims to convert Congress barb into asset
New Delhi – India’s tea makers are an industrious bunch whose road-side stalls are places of clanking kitchenware, gossip, and scalding hot brews.
Many vendors like Jaiveer Jasiwal, whose grimy family-run stand can be found in the old part of Delhi, dream of bigger things. But few ever thought one of their own might one day rise to be a candidate for prime minister.
Thanks to an ill-advised political barb from Congress lawmaker Mani Shankar Aiyar, who mocked the BJP’s Narendra Modi’s time as a chai wallah (tea boy), tea stands have been thrust centrestage in a bitter campaign for the national elections due by May.
On Wednesday night, Mr Modi began Chai pe Charcha (Discussion over Tea), which saw him slurp a glass in his home state and take questions about governance.
The event was broadcast to tea stands and their working class clients across the country in 300 cities, including Jasiwal’s, a stone’s throw from the Delhi’s landmark Red Fort.
“He (Modi) represents people like us who have small means, but big dreams,” said Jasiwal, 28, who also runs what he describes as a one-man business consultancy firm on the side.
“And if he can do it and I can sort of do it, then anyone can do anything. PM, doctor, teacher, actor, anything,” he said.
Mr Modi, who is accused by political rivals of being a divisive leader, is pitching a message of jobs, development, aspiration and social mobility.
One of his perceived assets is his background as a lower caste former tea boy from western Gujarat who rose through the ranks of grassroots Hindu organisations like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to become the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP.
In his public addresses, often delivered in coarse Hindi and dripping with sarcasm, Mr Modi routinely derides his main opponent, Rahul Gandhi, as a shahzada or prince.
Mr Gandhi, a Harvard-educated son, grandson and great-grandson of Indian prime ministers, still appears to struggle with his famous name and new role leading the ruling Congress party into elections.
Faced with a backlash against the English-speaking political establishment, epitomised by the surge of the new Aam Aadmi Party, the recent mockery of Mr Modi’s background appears to have spectacularly backfired.
Speaking at a meeting of the Congress party in January, Mr Aiyar told reporters of Modi: “There is no way he can be prime minister in the 21st century… But if he wants to come and serve tea here we can make some room for him.”
Mr Gandhi reportedly later condemned the remark in private – although he praised Aiyar publicly at the meeting – and commentators quickly seized on a slur seen as both casteist and patronising.
It was also at odds with the mood of the country at a time of immense economic change that has seen aspirations rise and the shackles of an ancient caste system loosen further.
“That remark can be very damaging,” said India watcher Christophe Jaffrelot, from the Sciences Po university in Pari. “I do think now that times have changed and you can’t claim that lineage is an asset. It’s a liability.”
If true, in a country where business and politics have long been dominated by a handful of well-connected families, this would represent a radical change
“See their mentality,” Mr Modi said recently at a campaign stop in northern Uttar Pradesh, referring to Congress, which has been in power nationally since 2004. “They do not like it if a chai wallah, a son of a poor mother walks with his head held high…The Congress has insulted the poor, mocked my origins as a tea seller.”
Mr Jaffrelot points out that only once has India had a prime minister whose background is comparable with Mr Modi’s: HD Deve Gowda, whose agricultural and rustic background set him apart from colleagues during his brief 1996-97 rule.
And in a country where up to 90 per cent of the working population have jobs in the informal sector – like tea stalls – Mr Modi can sell his personal story to a formidable constituency.
“The problem with most politicians, be it Congress or BJP or whoever, is their arrogance,” said tea seller Rameez, 33, who works in the Delhi suburb of Noida.
As rickshaw drivers and factory workers waited for a drink he added: “They feel only the rich and educated become prime ministers. At least Modi knows how to make tea, has Aiyar ever made anything himself? Doubtful.”
Rameez plans to open a restaurant.
“I don’t think I’ll become prime minister or the president,” he said. “But I definitely know that I can do something big.”