Modi rakes up toolkit row, claims Congress backing those trying to finish Assam tea

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(Eds: Adds details) Chabua, Mar 20 (PTI) Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday accused the Congress of openly supporting forces that are out to finish the identity of Assam tea and destroy its tea industry.

Addressing an election rally in this Upper Assam town, a day after Congress leader Rahul Gandhi interacted with tea garden workers here, Modi alleged that the party is playing with the 'pride and glory' of the oldest industry of the state.

He said a toolkit recently sought to defame Assam tea, famous across the world, and Yoga, the legacy of India's ancient saints, as part of a 'conspiracy'.

'A conspiracy was hatched against Assam tea. You must have heard about a toolkit. It sought to destroy the tea gardens of Assam. No Indian will allow that,' he said.

The prime minister was apparently referring to Swedish environmentalist Greta Thunberg's controversial toolkit, which she tweeted and then deleted, outlining ways in which people can participate in the farmers protest.

One of the points reportedly mentioned there was to 'disrupt yoga and chai image of India in general'.

'Congress is supporting such forces. And while doing so it has the temerity to come here and seek votes of the tea garden workers. They have fallen so low. They will be punished.

'Who can understand the problems of tea workers better than a 'chaiwala',' Modi said referring to his humble background when as a small boy he used to sell tea at a railway station and on trains in his native Gujarat.

Assam tea, full bodied and strong, has often been the flavour of electoral discourse during the campaign for the assembly elections.

Earlier this month, Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra wore the traditional 'mekhla chador', attempted a few steps of 'jhumur and learned how to fling with ease freshly plucked tea leaves into the wicker basket fastened to her back while on campaign trail in Assam.

Rahul Gandhi, while electioneering in Assam, lamented the poor wages of tea garden workers.

'Assam's tea garden workers get Rs 167 as daily wage while traders from Gujarat get tea gardens. We will raise tbe daily wage of tea garden workers to Rs 365 per day. From where the money will come? It will come from the traders from Gujarat,' he had told an election rally in Sivasagar.

The promise of raising the daily wage of tea garden workers from Rs 167 a day to Rs 365 also features in the Congress's election manifesto which Gandhi released on Saturday.

Gandhi, who on Friday had lunch with tea workers seated on ground, declared the hike will come into force within six hours of the Congress forming its government in the state.

In his speech, Modi said a few days ago the Congress had circulated photographs of Sri Lankan tea gardens and before that of Taiwan, passing them off as tea gardens of Assam.

'A mistake can happen once, but when it has been repeated, it shows the mentality. This is injustice and insult to the beautiful land of Assam,' the prime minister said.

'The mask is off the faces of those who talk of Asssam's 'asmita' (identity),' he said, attacking the Congress.

Speaking about the increase in the daily wage of tea garden workers, the prime minister alleged the Congress was 'spreading lies' over it.

The BJP, Modi said, was committed to increasing their wages and the Sarbananda Sonowal government had taken steps for its implementation but the matter landed in court where it was pending.

Renewing his pledge to raise the standard of living of tea garden workers, the prime minister said the Centre and the Assam government were working in tandem to provide them better healthcare and education facilities, housing, toilets, gas connection and clean drinking water.

The tea gardens of Assam, he said, can become an integral part of his 'Atmanirbhar Bharat' Mission by exporting organic tea not only to other states but also abroad.

He claimed the Congress, despite ruling the state for decades, was far removed from the people and culture of Assam.

'I have travelled across the Northeast and attempted to embrace its culture. You have seen me wearing 'Gamocha'. It is a matter of pride and honour for me but the Congress makes fun of even this,' he said.

The Congress has entered into an alliance with those who pose a threat to 'asmita aur sanskriti' (identity and culture) of the nation and this shows the hollowness of the national party, he said, without naming any party or leader.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah had, however, said on Monday that the Congress was 'shamelessly' talking of secularism and culture preservation while Lok Sabha MP and AIDUF chief Badruddin Ajmal's outfit was 'seated on its lap'.

'They (Congress) are releasing a manifesto of lies today. Their leader is moving around with a box of lies and false promises and you should be careful of him,' Modi said.

Accusing the Congress of having done nothing for the indigenous population of Assam for decades that it was in power, Modi said it took a Sarbananda Sonowal government to distribute land ownership 'patta' to three lakh such families.

Modi will address an election rally in Bokakhat on Sunday. PTI DG SK SK