One Congress MP was videotaped gorging on chicken legs with curry dribbling over his hands. Another made sure a generator ran a light and fans while he slept on a hired foam mattress. One cooked for herself in a Dalit’s house, but most hired cooks for their meals and ate in disposable plates and bowls instead of the worn, steel plates at Dalit homes.
And then there was the MP who did not even follow Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi’s suggestion of staying with India’s lowest castes —he left before night could fall.
MPs and state assembly members of India’s largest state are trying and failing to do what their leader is doing: Eating, drinking and sleeping with Dalits in a state where Gandhi has begun a grassroots effort to make Uttar Pradesh Congress territory again — Mission UP 2012.
It's been 20 years since a Congress government ruled UP, and after being wiped out since, the young Gandhi led a minor revival in the last Lok Sabha elections where the party won 21 of 80 seats.
It was Kanpur MP and Union Minister of State (independent charges), Ministry of Coal, Statistics and Programme Implementation, Shriprakash Jaiswal who hired the foam bed and fans in Kanpur’s Garib Chowki Dalit basti (slum). He also carried his own water.
What Congressmen are succeeding at is this: Giving speeches.
When reporters intercepted Bahraich MP Kamal Kishore soon after his chicken feast (hosted by a former MLA) on what happened to his ‘Dalit agenda’ he said: “Abhi Dalit chaupal lagegi (I am just about to hold a Dalit town-square meeting)’.” He did not even stay overnight in Rasoolpur village, part of his constituency.
Why is staying in Dalit homes so difficult?
“You would not be able to eat what we ate,” former Indian cricket team captain and Moradabad MP Mohammed Azharuddin reportedly told newspersons in Rae Bareilly on Saturday. He spent the previous evening and night in a village in Moradabad and ate on a makeshift dining table arranged for him.
No Dalit shared the table while Azharuddin ate from his disposable plate.
Anu Tandon too ate in a disposable plate, but at least she made her own food in the village of Brajlalpur is her constituency of Unnao.
Nirmal Khatri from Faizabad put in no such effort: He ate food made by a hired cook in the Firozpur Dalit slum.
Union Minister of State for Petroleum Jitin Prasada, Congress Legislative Party leader Pramod Tiwari and state party chief Rita Bahuguna Joshi did better than the others. Prasada ate the khichri bhoj (rice-gruel feast) at a Dalit house in Devleriya village in Lakhimpur Khiri.
UP Congress Committee spokesman Subodh Srivastava defended his flock’s failed attempts to live among the Dalits.
“How do we expect a poor Dalit household to feed 15-20 people when most of them do not have arrangements for two square meals for themselves?” he asked. “That is why arrangements were made for food, but people ate with Dalits only and shared the food.”
For instance, said Srivastava, the house that Joshi visited was “abysmally poor”. “So she took raw material from her home, but the food was cooked at the Dalit’s house only and she ate with them,” he said.
Srivastava said that “never before” had Congressmen and women spent a day with Dalits in almost every block of UP on the same day.
At the Dalit chaupals, Congress leaders heard people’s grievances, problems related to livelihood, electricity, below-poverty-line cards and more.