Prime Minister Narendra Modi kicked off his Assam election campaign on Saturday by reliving his life as a chaiwallah and playing the development card in the state’s eastern tea-growing belt.
Addressing a series of rallies in the state, Modi reminded Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi that he was “too elderly to be a rival”, and Assam was ready for an era of development under a new ‘tarun’ (young) leader – Sarbananda Sonowal, the BJP state chief and its projected chief ministerial candidate.
Gogoi has been underplaying Sonowal and other opposition leaders, stating that only Modi stands between him and the chief minister’s post for the fourth straight term. “The BJP and its allies will ensure a government that provides employment as well as all-round development, things that have eluded Assam in 60 years of Congress rule. The new age of development that Sarbananda and his allies usher in will see children in India recite ‘A for Assam’,” Modi said.
The Prime Minister held rallies at all the major tea-growing centres across Assam, with the exception of river island Majuli, on Saturday.
PM Modi: I sold Assam tea, I’m indebted to the state
At the Majuli assembly constituency, from where Sonowal is contesting, local BJP leaders hailed Modi as ‘Assamese’ to counter Gogoi’s barbs that the party was imposing outsiders from the Hindi heartland onto the northeastern state.
“Even this island has not been spared the Congress’ scourge of corruption. Our fight is against corruption, unemployment, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, underdevelopment…” Modi said in his Majuli address. “Who is responsible for all this backwardness? The Congress ruled Assam for 15 years. It gave us a PM (Manmohan Singh) for 10 years, but even he could not rescue the state from darkness.”
The Prime Minister accused Gogoi of trying to pick fault with him when he should have been presenting his performance sheet to the public. “Gogoiji, ask what you have done for Assam instead of targeting me. This is a state election, you should think of your state first,” Modi said.
He claimed that the ageing chief minister should retire instead of fighting him. “Gogoiji is approaching 90, and I don’t consider him as someone to fight against. He is my senior, and in our culture, we bow down before elders to seek ashirvaad,” he said.
Professing his devotion to the state, Modi said, “Assam holds a special place in my heart because her teas provided me with a livelihood. Assam’s teas have energised Indians, but the condition of tea workers has not improved under this (Congress) government. We want to see them smile, and not just in advertisements.”
Tea plantation workers, comprising about 18% of Assam’s total population, are a major voting force in at least 30 of Assam’s 126 assembly constituencies. Most of these plantations are in eastern Assam, which goes to the polls on April 4.
“Even the PM has limitations, but you can change Assam’s fortunes by pressing the right button on April 4. Your decision will help Sarbananda live up to his name and help us bail Assam out of backwardness and darkness,” Modi said.
The Prime Minister came down heavily on the Congress for failing to provide basic amenities such as potable water and electricity. “Assam has rich natural resources, but its people are thirstying for clean water. Assam produces gas but the poor do not have gas to cook… as many as 2,000 villages are without electricity,” he said.
Modi said the Gogoi government has not spent even a fourth of the development funds provided by the Centre. “The state government avoids providing updates on utilisation, but we have launched our own initiatives to provide power to 1,000 villages in Assam,” he added.
The NDA government has been providing funds to the poor through the Jan Dhan Yojana, so they can start their own ventures, Modi said. “In the next three years, we will provide LPG connections to poor families so that mothers don’t have to cook with firewood and inhale smoke equivalent to 400 cigarettes.”