Anant Zanane: Lajjjawati spreads a fresh layer of cowdung on her walls, just one part of the warm welcome she's planning for her houseguest, Jitin Prasada. The young minister will stay at her house on Friday night. In fact, across Uttar Pradesh, Dalit families are hosting 300 Congress leaders on the night of Gandhi Jayanti. The inspiration, critics say, is less the Mahatma, and more another Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi's surprise sleepovers at Dalit houses have been adopted as party strategy to prove that the Congress stands for the poorest of the poor.
That target audience, however, is under no illusion about why it's suddenly the focus of attention. Dalits in India's largest state form 21 per cent of voters, and are crucial to the Rahul Gandhi-led mission to revive the Congress here. So when asked why Prasada, the Junior Petroleum Minister, has chosen her house and not the village thakur's, Lajjawati offers this simple response: "Because we voted for him."
Congressmen participating in the houseguest programme have been given strict instructions: no mineral water bottles, no tiffins. On one hand, that message of simplicity. On the other, the quest for the perfect photo-opportunity.
So Jitin Prasada's advance party ensures that beds are removed from Lajjawati's house. "We have to get this done, the house should also look like a Dalit's house," says Ramendra Janwar, Prasada's media coordinator.
Despite the attempts to make this seem like the politicians' version of Survivor, the villagers prepare a sumptuous lunch for the Minister. Any real or perceived manipulation aside, there is a sense of celebration: Prasada, a Brahmin landowner eating a meal cooked by Dalits. Afterwards, riding a tractor, Prasada gives a predictable soundbite: "I liked the food not because it was delicious but also because it was made and served with so much warmth."
But the Congress will have to deliver more than its slumber party. Ram Kumar Pasi, a Dalit, has the final word: "All I want to say is that we hope that we will be received with the same amount of warmth as we have extended to the minister, if we ever visit him in Delhi".