Mahatma Gandhi famously took his tea with a pinch of salt. It was 1931, the Salt Satyagraha was a year old and his tea-serving host was the British Viceroy, Lord Irwin. Had the Indian National Congress recalled that little soupcon of history, it would not have put out a meme of a British Prime Minister ordering another Gujarati (PM Narendra Modi) to ‘go sell tea’.
The Mahatma was no great votary of tea, but was a master of symbolism. Gently rubbing salt into the Imperial wound, he twinkled, “To remind us of the famous Boston Tea Party”. An exquisite reference to the genesis of American Independence, with the implicit promise of freedom for India.
If only today’s Congress understood the power of symbols a tenth as well. In 2014, the BJP parleyed Mani Shankar Aiyer’s infamous ‘chaiwallah’ remark into an unprecedented victory. The Congress, reviled as an elitist party led by the sons of Macaulay, drank the bitter brew of defeat. Incredibly, on the eve of the most critical election since then, it has served up a vile concoction and expects the voters of Gujarat to swallow it!
The meme put out by Yuva Sandesh projects Narendra Modi as a bumpkin, snottily put down by Donald Trump and Theresa May, who tells him, “tu chai bech”. The implication doubtless being that in the comity of nations, Modi-the-erstwhile-tea vendor is unfit to represent India and is treated as a servant. The Youth Congress’ coffee-shop brigade may well wonder what a silly little meme has to do with the price of tea in China, ie, the Gujarat elections. The answer is that it’s an early Christmas gift for the BJP. The party was neck-deep in hot water in Gujarat, but can now play the Gujarati pride card to the hilt.
The BJP understands, as the Congress does not, that tea symbolizes all the fuzzy warmth of Indian culture. It is a great leveller — from the richest to the poorest, everyone drinks tea. Tea also symbolizes unity in diversity. Every region has its own variant, from the karak Punjabi chai to the rich kahwa of Kashmir. In every village, the tea shop is the hub of discussions and newspaper-reading, caste and class no bar. Everyone has the very same cuppa, although caste may determine the choice of glassware.
Most of all, it is the basis of hospitality; a glass of water is inevitably followed by an offer of tea. If it isn’t, you are clearly unwelcome and your very presence is an imposition. During a one-to-one interaction with journalists at 10, Janpath in her maiden year as Congress president, Sonia Gandhi made the critical error of failing to offer them water and tea. The lapse of etiquette was forgiven, but never forgotten.
Likewise, the Congress will never be allowed to forget Aiyer’s ‘chaiwallah’, which proved even more poisonous for the party than Shashi Tharoor’s ‘cattle class’ comment. Most Indians have never taken a flight, but all of them drink tea. Modi made ‘chaiwallah’ sexy, by owning it through his chai pe charcha campaign; he wore his erstwhile poverty like a badge of honour. A year later, images of the gorgeous, blue-eyed Pakistani chaiwallah-in-fact Arshad Khan, broke the internet and made it even sexier! The Congress failed to imbibe the lesson.
Chaiwallah 2.0 is already being positioned as a rich versus poor, Indian culture versus foreign ethos narrative. Belatedly realizing the emotional quotient of the controversy, the Congress has frantically sought to distance itself from the meme, but the damage is done. Congress president-in-waiting Rahul Gandhi is already burdened with a classist image: a platinum-spoon heritage, foreign education, a passion for drag-racing, five-star restaurants and holidays abroad. Small wonder he is unable to connect with voters, in a time of growing nationalism and distrust of feudal privilege. The current controversy ruthlessly focuses public attention on all these negatives.
So what if the PM can’t pronounce meme correctly? We are proud of our Hinglish, or Gujlish, as the case may be. Voters are more likely to laugh at Rahul’s accent when he speaks Hindi, rather than Modi’s when he struggles with English. The Congress had best join the tea party, or it may lose its (T) shirt in Gujarat.
— (The writer is a senior journalist. Views are personal)