Rameshwar Teli's Inclusion in Govt Telling of BJP's Desire to Woo Assam's Tea Tribe

The BJP has strategically chosen Teli to continue nourishing the community keeping the assembly polls in mind – which are just two years away.

New Delhi: The second term of the Narendra Modi government, much like its first, includes two ministers from the Northeast.

While Kiren Rijiju, an MP from Arunachal Pradesh, has been named a minister of state with independent charge (sports), Rameshwar Teli, who represents the Dibrugarh Lok Sabha constituency of Assam, is the new minister of state for food processing.

In the 2014 Modi regime, Rajen Gohain from Assam had also been appointed as the minister of state for the railways.

If you approach the term-two ministerial announcements made earlier today from the angle of specific Northeastern states being represented in the Modi ministry, it is no different from 2014. These two states also had a reason to be represented in 2014 – BJP picked up Lok Sabha seats only from these two states during the Modi wave of 2014.

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In 2019 though, aside from Assam and Arunachal, the BJP won seats – for the first time – in two Northeastern states – Manipur (one) and Tripura (two). By that logic, the 58-member strong central government should have a representative from at least one of these states.

A strategic move

But Teli’s elevation from a Lok Sabha MP to a central minister is a strategic move by the party.

A two-time BJP MLA and a two-time MP, Teli belongs to Assam’s tea tribe, a community that BJP has been pandering to for some time now. Since the 60s through the 90s, the Congress’ typical vote bank in the state has been the proverbial Ali-Coolie-Bongali (Muslims, the tea tribe and the Bengali Hindus) bracket, a combination of voters sufficient for the party to win an election. The ability of the Congress to hold on to this axis was also a reason for heartburn among the majority Assamese community.

From the late 1990s on, the BJP start chipping away the Bengali Hindu vote from the Congress, and the Muslim vote began to shift towards the All India United Democratic Front (AIUDF) from 2005 onwards.

While these two core voter bases of the state leaned majorly towards religious politics, it was the tea tribe that stood firmly with the Congress, and which helped the party retain its electoral control over the state for three consecutive terms till early 2016.

The tribe, with 35-40% vote share in the Brahmaputra Valley, which has most of the 126 assembly seats, has a considerable say in every election. It made it absolutely crucial for the BJP to snatch these votes from the Congress in order to weaken its hold in the state. The RSS, which had infiltrated the labour lines of the tea gardens in the 1980s, amplified their work to gain that goal for the BJP.

The outcome was the Duliajan assembly seat, which Teli, as the influential former general secretary of the Assam Tea Tribe Students Union (AATSU), won for the party in 2001. He was the only MLA of the party from the Brahmaputra Valley to win that election aside from the seven others mainly representing the Bengali Hindus.

Recalling that time at a press meet held for journalists in New Delhi on May 31, Teli said, “It was a big win. Even after five supporters of Assam Movement were killed in the assembly constituency during the height of the agitation, the AGP couldn’t take that seat from the Congress.” It was mainly because the tea tribe continued to back the Congress.

Both in the 2014 Lok Sabha and the 2016 assembly polls, the BJP could become victorious in the Brahmaputra Valley mainly due to the success of the RSS in channelling the tea tribe votes into BJP. With the Assamese community getting vocal against the BJP close to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls due to the Citizenship (amendment) Bill, it became all the more vital for the BJP to hold on to its tea tribe votes.

The result was a volley of sops announced in the last state budget, which helped the party reap results on May 23. Aside from partnering with the AGP, the ability to retain Jorhat, Lakhimpur, Dibrugarh and Tezpur Lok Sabha seats on May 23 was due to the support it bagged from the tea tribe community. The budget sops also neutralised to a considerable extent the Modi government’s failure to grant scheduled tribe status to the community as promised before the 2016 assembly polls.

Teli’s selection to the Modi government on May 23 was done to continue nourishing the community keeping the assembly polls in mind, which are just two years away. So was the decision of the party to pick former MP and a young leader from the community, Kamakhya Prasad Tasa, to the Rajya Sabha early this week.

By naming Teli as a minister of state, the BJP has also equaled what the Congress had done for the community. In 2011, Pawan Singh Ghatowar, a five-time MP from Dibrugarh who was defeated in two consecutive terms by Teli (2014 and 2019), was a minister of state in the UPA II government.

One of the reasons that Congress’ hold on the tea tribe has dwindled over the years is also because of the shrinking popularity of the Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangh within the community. The trade union has long been considered the representative voice of the tea tribe. Though Ghatowar still heads the Mazdoor Sangh, that he couldn’t do much to get his community’s votes in the recent polls is a case in point.

On asked about the declining effect of the Mazdoor Sangh on his community, Teli told reporters, “It was once our voice but over the years, it became the voice of the tea garden owners, not the labourers. It was since then our people have begun to lose interest in it. Another reason is that people of our community are more educated than before. They now can think for themselves.”