In Varanasi on Tuesday, Amit Shah literally had a lot on his plate. Perhaps he should have tried a real meal at a real Dalit's home.
It is likely, instead of a daal-roti-curd-three veggies-onion pakora-rice menu, served in stainless thaalis, washed down with a bottle of water (hopefully packaged), the BJP chief would been served just onion-roti, spread on a piece of rag or an old newspaper. And there would have been very little likelihood of an air-cooler making the mid-summer experience a little more tolerable.
But, this is election season. What matters is not what you eat, but where you eat: Not the menu, but the political milieu. And Shah chose the best for his electoral taste.
The BJP chief was in the Jogiyapur village of Varanasi, the historic eastern Uttar Pradesh city that is these days more famous for being Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. The village is dominated by Bind's, members of the politically significant Dalit community in the state.
If eating out, digging pits and pegging tents at the homes of Dalits were a shortcut to power, Rahul Gandhi would have by now become the President of the United States. The itinerant vice-president of the Congress has notched up so many frequent-diner points during the run-up to the 2012 Assembly polls in Uttar Pradesh, that it is still a mystery why his party got fewer seats than the number of pieces of bread he broke while on election dinnerism — or was it dinner tourism?
Shah is no Rahul. He has an enormous appetite for success, hunger for power and the experience of gobbling up many electoral victories in the past. So, unlike Rahul, Shah may actually go on to devour UP without making a meal of it. Maybe, like in 2014, he may get the lion's share of votes and seats.
But, to go back to where we started, he already has his plate full.
For years, the BJP was known as a party of T-3: Tilak, tarazu and talwar (Brahmins, traders and Rajputs). And for years, Dalits were fed the ideology of "inke maaro joote chaar." The twain, historically, have been averse to being part of the same political khichdi. In the 2014 General Election, one of the major reasons for the BJP's success was a perceptible shift in voting patterns that saw a sizeable number of Dalits and Jats of western UP joining the T3 to make it a formidable rainbow coalition of castes and communities.
According to a post-poll study of Dalit voters by CSDS-Lokniti, one in every four Dalits voted for the BJP in 2014. This was a gargantuan leap from the post-1990s era when it managed to attract only one in every 10 Dalit voters. The ratio was even higher for the National Democratic Alliance coalition where nearly one in every three Dalits voted for it. Most of these gains came at the expense of the Congress and the Bahujan Samaj Party.
In UP, Dalits form nearly 21 percent of the electorate. In Assembly election after election, they have been voting for Mayawati, whom they consider a legatee of BR Ambedkar and his disciple Kanshi Ram. At the peak of her popularity, studies show, Mayawati has bagged nearly 85 percent of Dalit votes in the state. This is a trend Shah is trying to reverse with his political dinnerism, the logical corollary to the BJP's attempts to claim Ambedkar's legacy through a series of initiatives over the past two years.
If Dalits stay with Mayawati, it could cause the BJP some serious heartburn. Since it is becoming evident that the Samajwadi Party is fast losing its popularity and the Congress becoming irrelevant, the 25 percent Muslims of UP could rally behind the BSP, making it a formidable adversary. And, if the Brahmins, as they have done in the past, also gravitate towards Mayawati, the BJP's goose would be cooked long before dinner-time in the elections.
Will Shah succeed?
In 2014, as CSDS-Lokniti pointed out, the BJP’s Dalit vote base was largely the upwardly mobile sections — urban, educated, middle classes, with high media exposure. Before that, in 2012, Dalits left the BSP and voted for Mulayam Singh Yadav's party in pursuit of better governance and to get rid of a government that was seen as corrupt and lacking in vision.
If Shah has to ruin Mayawati's party, he will have to dish out a similar promise to Dalits 2017 and make his a la carte appear better than that of Mayawati.
Will eating out help? Ask Rahul Gandhi.