Tea has started revolutions. On a cold day in the 18th century—December 16, 1773, to be precise—the founding grandfathers of America held an unusual tea ceremony in Boston. Its treasury drained by tea wars with China, Britain decided to increase taxes in its colonies. ‘No taxation without representation’ became the American war cry and colonists disguised as Red Indians threw overboard hundreds of pounds of English tea into Boston Harbour—a historic event called the Boston Tea Party. As other British ships shared the same fate, Britain sent its redcoats to subdue its huge, restive colony, which eventually led to the start of the American War for Independence in 1775. In effect, the Boston Tea Party was responsible for the creation of one of the world’s most powerful democracies that has lasted till today.
In India, too, a tea party is happening, redefining the world’s largest democracy. Starting as a streetside chatshow revolution in teashops all over the country, India’s probable next Prime Minister is brewing change. This time it goes beyond being just a saffron concoction. There are millions of teashops all over the country and only one tea-seller—Narendra Modi.
Since centuries, the wayside teashop is where India congregates. Some doze under ancient banyan trees; on the few rough wooden benches kept on mud-paved courtyards sit turbaned villagers sipping strong milky tea and tattling. The teashop is a postcard from the ordinary India, a daily destination for those with little to do and much to think about. They chatter about what affects them locally—the price of produce, what happened on market day, the actions of goondas plaguing the village or a disobedient couple who eloped to sin city. Along India’s highways and state roads exist hundreds of small teashops with smoky mud walls and clay fires on which sit old, stained pans holding boiling mud-coloured tea spotted with swarms of tea leaves. Here, truckers and travellers stop to partake of the strong brew. Cupping the cheap cracked glasses in their hands and blowing with anticipation on the steaming liquid, they speak about things they see, feel and hear about. The cost of freight, the difference in gas prices and the schesis of hinterland India; most of them come from there. They are India’s roadies of national narrative, talebearers of the nation’s mood. In small towns where little roads and trash-covered by-lanes meet are teashops teeming with customers sipping the compatible concoction—boys from nearby automobile workshops, daily wage toilers from the construction site next door, a clerk cycling home from the lala’s office. India’s great cities are dotted with hundreds of teashops where tea boys skip about like dirty little Hermeses, where taxi and autorickshaw drivers, immigrant labourers and jobless local youth argue animatedly over their fantasies and the distances from what they dream about; to put a son through college when the father couldn’t read or write, to buy the boss’s old car, or get a job in an office. India is a vast auditorium of lost conversations; words trapped in the spindrift of aspirations.
It is how news travels in India, over a cup of tea. It is also how news spreads. Together, a million disparate conversations form the temper of the nation. When there begins a shift in the mood, it starts as a storm in a teacup that gathers momentum to become a typhoon—disgust towards the government, anger at corruption, fury at apathy and exploitation.
It is the sign of a good politician to see an opportunity in the popular mood and exploit it to his gain. It is the sign of a great politician to fashion an opportunity to level his opponents. It is a rare politician who can seize a fortuity, convert it into an opportunity and create a wave. Narendra Modi has seized the season by capturing ordinary India’s gestalt. All over the cup that cheers.