In the United States, the term “Tea Party” refers to the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, a group that espouses ultra-conservative views and is intransigently opposed to President Barack Obama. In India, “tea party” is also associated with conservative politics – but in a decidedly more literal way. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat and the prime ministerial candidate for the right-wing, Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has engaged in a massive, countrywide public relations program by meeting with members of the public and to enjoy tea with them in "Chai Pe Charcha" ("a chat over tea").
It is unclear if Modi’s tea parties have any connection with the American Tea Party, but the drink has deep meaning to both Modi and India; tea is not only the country’s most popular beverage, but, as a boy, Modi worked as a humble tea-seller with his father, who owned a tea stall. Although polls suggest that Modi and the BJP will defeat the incumbent Congress Party in elections two months away, Modi clearly does not want to take anything for granted.
The Times News Network news agency of India reported that Modi’s tea parties are broadcast across the country by Internet and video-conferencing as he has attracted huge crowds wherever he has gone to speak. Some of the events are also broadcast live by Indian television networks, greatly expanding the audience. Organized by the Gujarat-based NGO Citizens for Accountable Governance, these tea parties are designed for Modi to spell out his vision of India if he is elected and to answer questions directly from ordinary people (either in person or by video conference); something similar to what Americans call a “town hall.”
According to a report from Press Trust of India, the BJP launched the tea parties in response to comments by a Congress member named Mani Shankar Aiyar who made fun of Modi’s childhood vocation as a tea-seller (and for talking about it so much). "See their mentality," Modi said of Congress at a rally. "They do not like it if a chai wallah [tea-seller], 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." BBC noted that while technical glitches sometimes plague the broadcasts of Modi’s tea talks, many Indians like the concept of a national politician using modern technology to campaign while celebrating a treasured and simple Indian tradition. "Often politicians are unable to get their point across," an elderly man in Delhi watching Modi told BBC. "And voters have no way of communicating directly with the politicians. This new approach certainly addresses that."
Some tea parties cater to a specific audience. For example, on Saturday, in conjunction with International Women’s Day, Modi held a chat specifically with females. The BJP has focused heavily on women’s issues, exploiting the widespread awareness of the high rates of violence and rape that Indian females face. Indeed, as The Hindu newspaper reported, BJP has vowed to increase the number of women police officers, improve the speed of courts that try rape cases and to push for universal education of all girls.
The tea parties have become such a phenomenon that the independent Election Commission has demanded that Modi’s campaign request permission to hold these events beforehand and has even wondered if providing free tea to people constitutes a political “bribe.” PTI reported that some BJP members are seeking to trademark the phrase ‘NaMo Tea Party’ (NaMo is a popular abbreviation for Modi’s name) by filing a patent application with the government.
Modi has even held tea parties with tea-sellers themselves. The Times of India reported that last month that Modi met with tea vendors across the impoverished state of Bihar via teleconferencing. "It is only the first phase of NaMo's 'Chai pe charcha' program in the state,” Bihar’s BJP leader Mangal Pandey said at the time. “He [will] personally talk to… select tea vendors. The main purpose of the program is to establish direct contact with the poor and weaker sections of society.”
The tea party broadcasts also reflect how political campaigns in India are finally taking advantage of mobile telecommunications and social media. Some 200 million Indians are now hooked up to the Internet, and many youths are enamored with social media (which the BJP is also using to promote Modi). “We are moving far ahead of saying that we are building ‘likes’ on social media,” Arvind Gupta, head of IT and social media for the BJP, told the Financial Times. “Organization is being done using digital. So if I’m going to tell everybody there’s an event tomorrow, it can be posted on Facebook, websites, on SMS, on WhatsApp, though the real meeting is happening on the ground.”
Of course, not everyone is thrilled by these tea-based evens, given that Modi is an extremely polarizing figure in India. "It's just a big show which will amount to nothing," a man in Delhi told the BBC. "Everyone here is a BJP supporter. The others are not going to make up their mind over a silly cup of tea." On a larger scale, the Congress Party has reacted derisively to Modi’s tea chats – they have formed something called the “RaGa Milk Stall” (RaGa refers to Rahul Gandhi, the likely prime ministerial candidate for Congress).
The Hindu reported that Congress members and activists have set up stalls serving ‘Raga Doodh’ (milk) to passers-by, pedestrians and rickshaw drivers in some parts of the country. Imitating the Modi tea model, the milk is served in cups bearing the image of Rahul Gandhi. Congress operatives have told people that tea (like BJP policy) is “unhealthy,” while milk is healthy. Syed Jamal, the Congress leader of Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh, declared: “Our message is clear that the BJP’s tea is spreading communal poison among the people. Tea is a foreign beverage, and even doctors ask you to avoid it. But milk is an Indian drink that builds health of youths and gives them strength.”
Nonetheless, on a symbolic sense, Modi is using tea to suggest the idea that he is the voice and champion of India’s common people, a stance that resonates with many in India, in stark contrast to the powerful Gandhi clan of Congress, who are fabulously wealthy and aristocratic. Jaiveer Jasiwal, a young tea vendor himself in Delhi, said of Modi: "He represents people like us who have small means, but big dreams. And if he can do it and I can sort of do it, then anyone can do anything. PM, doctor, teacher, actor, anything.”