“Now we have started eating together. In my village, we eat at each other’s place. In all the States and in all RSS camps everybody sits in rows on the ground and eats together. In the beginnings RSS also faced some opposition in this venture. But Dr Hedgewar in Nagpur camp isolated the few people who opposed this process. He asked them to eat separately. But he never isolated the Dalits and always ate with them.”

According to MG Chitkara, swayamsevak and author of Dr Ambedkar and Social Justice, these are the words of Madhukar Dattatraya Deoras, sarsanghchalak of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from 1973 to 1993. Deoras was reportedly responding to the questions of a Dalit Panther youth. But he may well have been describing a more recent scene.

Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah lunched with a Dalit family in Jogiyapur on Tuesday. The BJP leader was photographed sitting on the floor and digging into a sumptuous meal while a woman in a pink saree plied him with fresh rotis.

Jogiyapur is a village in Sewapuri Assembly segment of Varanasi Lok Sabha constituency, currently held by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With the Uttar Pradesh assembly polls looming up next year, the BJP has started making overtures to the state’s large Dalit population.

Eating together

For non-Dalit parties in UP, breaking bread with Dalit voters has become a popular political gesture. Mayawati, face of the Bahujan Samaj Party, dismissed Amit Shah’s meal as mere theatrics and the Samajwadi Party sniffed that it did not recognise caste, though it is clearly not above cultivating minority vote banks. But Rahul Gandhi’s dinners with Dalit families was a prominent feature of the Congress campaign for the UP assembly elections of 2012.

It is no surprise that food should be the focus of caste-based politics. As sociologist GS Ghurye explained long ago, the caste system in India is arranged around the feeding of the twice born – who may eat with them, who may not, who may serve them and who must keep a distance because their very presence is “pollution”.

Dalits, consigned to the ranks of the “impure”, have experienced centuries of marginalisation tied to food. Eating a meal together, that most social and yet most intimate of actions, could signal a willingness to break these ritual hierarchies. For non-Dalit parties, it is perhaps the most direct way of reaching out to a Dalit electorate. But the gesture is fraught with pitfalls.

With Rahul Gandhi, it became a show of feudal affability – the political scion descending on poor Dalit homes for one day and making a virtue of roughing it out, so to speak. The Congress vice president was criticised for tokenism and his party found few takers in the 2012 assembly polls.

Now Amit Shah’s lunch has been picked apart for not being authentic enough, for taking place in a relatively affluent Other Backward Classes household, for not being cooked in a real Dalit kitchen and leaving out coarser fare that poor families have to eat every day. And what of Dalit food habits which often lie outside the rules imposed on caste Hindus? It would be interesting to see how the BJP president negotiates Dalit communities who have beef on the menu.

Indeed, Shah’s cautious experiments with food seems to betray a certain queasiness within the BJP.

Recasting the BJP

The saffron party, making a determined push for UP in the coming elections, has realised that it will have to spread out beyond its traditional Brahmin-Rajput-Bania base. The communal politics favoured by the BJP in UP has ensured that Muslims are left out of the party fold. That leaves the other backward classes and the Dalits, who account for 20.5% of the state’s population and have previously gathered behind Mayawati’s BSP.

The BJP has already started cultivating the non-Yadav OBC votebank, appointing Keshav Prasad Maurya, a Khushwaha leader, as the state party chief. And the BSP has kept a curiously low profile in recent months, leaving behind a vacuum that the BJP could fill. But the Dalit outreach launched by Amit Shah at the Ujjain Kumbh, and continued in Varanasi, seems to sit uneasy with the party’s upper caste leadership.

The lunch at Jogiyapur, for instance, was followed by a clarification from Maurya – the BJP president was merely dining at a party worker’s house, not courting Dalit voters. It would seem that a section of the BJP does not want to go public with the party’s new warmth for the Dalit vote bank just yet.

The Sangh Parivar’s traditionally thorny relationship with caste became apparent in the Bihar elections last year, when RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat asserted that economic criteria should be the only basis of reservations. Though the BJP tried to distance itself from his remarks, the impression stayed and the party fared badly in Bihar. Even where the Sangh Parivar has made a visible effort to reach out to Dalit voters, it is not exactly driven by the most radical impulses.

The RSS approach

Last December, the RSS told volunteers across the country to adopt at least one Dalit family, meet them regularly and dine with them. The organisation insisted that the initiative was meant to mark Deoras’s 100th birth anniversary and drew inspiration from his efforts to end untouchability. Except Deoras, earnestly trying to dine with Dalits in the 1970s and ’80s, was driven by that era’s preoccupation with Hindu ekta, or the consolidation of Hindu society against “outsiders”, rather than social justice.

In the same interview with the Dalit Panther youth, Deoras voiced his suspicion of state policies that accentuated “separate Harijan, Vanavasi and Adivasi identities” and dismissed Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism as a “weapon” to shock Hindu society. “Sincere social mingling should be there. We should stay together – this attitude must be built up,” he went on to say.

The RSS dealt out patronage to Dalits to draw them into the Hindu fold and erase caste differences. This universalising benevolence did not make much room for specific measures to correct years of oppression suffered by Dalits as a group. The same paternalistic instincts seem to be at work in the RSS’s current initiative, which is likely to power the BJP campaign in UP. It remains to be seen how the BJP deals with more tangible questions of quota and social empowerment as it slips into its new role as a pro-Dalit party.

Because caste inequalities still thrive in UP, as the recent droughts made painfully clear. Dalits in parched villages were hit the hardest as they had unequal access to food and water, and they were the first to migrate in search of viable livelihoods elsewhere. Generations of injustice have created these entrenched inequalities. It will take more than a friendly word or a hearty lunch to set them right.