A group of people sip tea and discuss politics at a roadside stall. It is not an unusual sight in West Bengal – or indeed India. After all tea stalls are said to be the best place to understand which way the political wind is blowing. However, look closely, and there is something different this time, as The Federal recently discovered in East Midnapore district, where elections to all seats were over by April 1.
At a teashop at Goyagiri Stand on National Highway 116B, on the outskirts of Kanthi, two men were discussing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech in the constituency earlier in the day (March 24).
“How can Modi promise to rid the state of cut-money and syndicate culture while sharing the dais with Suvendu Adhikari?” one asked loudly, as if to draw the attention of others.
Adhikari, a former Trinamool heavyweight, is pitted against Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in Nandigram where polling was held on April 1. The discussion looked spontaneous. But the man who made that comment was not an idle passerby. He was Abed Khan, a state committee member of the Trinamool Chhatra Parishad (TMCP) – the ruling party’s student wing. Khan was putting into practice a strategy developed by the party’s poll strategist, Prashant Kishor, and his Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC).
“We have been asked to campaign discreetly, without revealing our identities. So please don’t write anything about this [campaign] until elections in the district are over,” Khan told The Federal.
In East Midnapore district alone 332 two-member teams of the TMCP carried out “whisper campaigns” in the run-up to voting day, Khan said.
The Federal found another TMCP team holding political discussions near Nandigram bus stand. A Nandigram college student and a TMCP functionary comprised this team.
“Before elections, the I-PAC team held a series of meetings with us to discuss how TMCP could play a bigger role in electioneering, beyond the usual tasks of putting up posters, banners, hoardings and flags,” Khan said.
He said apart from conducting outreach programmes for students through multiple WhatsApp groups, the TMCP had been asked to hold their own ‘chai pe charcha’ talks. In the run-up to the 2014 election, Kishor had formulated a marketing and advertising campaign for Modi, which included ‘chai pe charcha’ discussions, 3D rallies, etc.
The TMCP’s version of chai pe charcha involved making it appear “unbiased, free-flowing”, the Khan said.
“In suburbs, small towns and villages, college students generally have the ears of the common people. So the idea is to spread the party’s message without making it obvious,” Khan added.
The teams were provided relevant topics for discussions every day, often picked up from speeches of BJP leaders such as Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, according to Khan.
“The modus operandi involves entering a tea stall and holding discussions among ourselves regarding shortcomings in the policies of the BJP government at the Centre and the election speeches of BJP leaders,” Khan said.
“Invariably, these conversations draw in nearby customers, who are probably not aware of the political affiliations of the students,” said Khan, who was entrusted to oversee the campaign in the district.
He said similar campaigns were being carried out in other parts of the state too.