Lucknow: It's a battle for the heart of India - one that's playing out among the poorest, most marginalized community in the country's largest state.
On one side of the trenches is Mayawati, once the undisputed political icon for India's Dalits. On the other, is Rahul Gandhi bent on reaching out to the Dalits who make up 21% of the voters in Uttar Pradesh. On paper, the BSP provides outside support to the Congress-led government in Delhi. But in real life, the gloves are off.
And on Gandhi Jayanti, all district heads of the Congress will spend the night at a Dalit hut. That means around 300 Dalit families will have VIP houseguests.
Among those who have been persuaded to play host: 50-year-old Dilip Valmiki in Iradat Nagar of Lucknow. As a daily wage labourer, Dilip makes Rs 50 a day to support his wife and 3 children. As he waits for his VIP, he says he can't offer much more than respect.
The Congress sleepovers are likely to enrage Mayawati, who has more than once trained her guns at Rahul Gandhi. The sarcasm was evident in a recent speech: "We are sending our Yuvraj to eat and sleep in Dalit homes," she said ahead of Rahul's much talked about visit.
But an unfazed Rahul has continued to devote time and attention to the Dalit heartland, positioning the Congress as a party of the poor. His unique tactics include surprise visits to Dalit houses in small villages where he bathes at hand pumps, eats puri-sabzi, and sleeps in courtyards.
"Do I look like a person who uses a special soap?" he said at a recent rally, showing off the dirt on his clothes after a day spent touring a Dalit locality. His battle cry: that Mayawati has betrayed who and what she stands for.
And so after generations of being suppressed, Uttar Pradesh's Dalits are now on political centrestage - whether they want it or not.