Amethi, Uttar Pradesh – Amid the political campaigning for India’s ongoing parliamentary elections, Sunita Kori’s newly erected mortar and brick shelter serves a perfect platform for politicians of all hues to jostle each other.
It was in 2008 that the ruling Congress leader Rahul Gandhi stopped over for a night at her tumbling mud and hay-roofed house at Jawaharpur – a village of Dalits (formerly untouchables) located in the Amethi constituency in India’s northern Uttar Pradesh state.
“It was nice to have him as my guest. He spoke with us and dined with my family,” Kori, 30, told Al Jazeera inside the room where the scion of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty had slept.
“He listened to our problems and pledged to take care of Dalits.”
All Dalits in this village live in decrepit mud and thatch houses found in small clusters close to the picturesque golden wheat fields surrounded by banyan and mango trees.
Those built with mortar and baked bricks with elaborate concrete patios and well-maintained gardens belong to higher castes – Brahmins and Thakurs – part of a centuries old divide seen everywhere in the country’s north.
But the hut of Kori – an outspoken Dalit – is different.
. Kori quickly became Congress’ anti-Mayawati talisman”]
Rahul had visited the village in the run-up to 2009 parliamentary elections to woo the Dalit voters, who constitute almost 28 per cent of Amethi’s population.
The night stay at Kori’s home seemed a successful endeavor, for the Congress leader won the 2009 parliamentary polls from this Gandhi family bastion.
Life changed for Kori – a mother of four – too. Her husband, Madan Lal, 34, was inducted into a government-sponsored scheme for adult girls as field officer.
“I also got involved in Congress affairs with the hope of changing the plight of women in my village,” she said, adding “But they fired my husband after ten months.”
Later their house which she says was burnt down allegedly by workers of Samajwadi Party (SP) – a powerful regional party – forcing the family to live in a separate two-room house meant for Lal’s old parents.
“Congress did not help me. The party men who had visited our village in 2008 refused to recognise me. It was then I gave up on the party,” she said.
“We were shattered. I had to retake farming job at the upper caste Hindus where I make 60 rupees (app $1) a day since then,” bemoans Lal at his house plastered with mud.
The family has not seen electricity for several years, there is no safe drinking water, and they do not have any means to educate their children.
The sudden visit of Rahul to the village and spending a night at Kori’s ramshackle hut, many say, was not a coincidence.
|Sunita Kori says the politicians abandon Dalits like her two-room-house that was left partially built [Baba Umar / Al Jazeera]|
“It was an attempt to score against the political rivals such as Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) in 2008 and making an effective political field for the Congress in the 2009 parliamentary elections,” explains Alok Shrivastava who covered the event for a TV channel.
“Rahul used to mention her sufferings in various gatherings to highlight the problems Dalits faced under BSP leader Mayawati’s rule [as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh]. Kori quickly became Congress’ anti-Mayawati talisman. It was a sort of the Dalit face against a Dalit-Queen [Mayawati]”.
In fact, India’s controversial religious figure Baba Ramdev last Friday said that Rahul had visited houses of “Dalits for honeymoon and picnic” – a remark that has triggered a fresh controversy.
Rahul Gandhi did not revisit Kori’s place after winning his seat in 2009, but it never stopped her house from becoming a magnate for various political parties to get Dalit votes in the area.
It was the newly elected legislator Gayatri Prasad Prajapati of SP who sought to take political mileage out of her disappointment with the Congress in 2012.
Prajapati helped build a permanent structure for Kori’s family but without a roof.
Now in the current parliamentary elections, Kori has once again become the spotlight in Amethi, where almost 1.4 million voters – a majority of whom still swears by the Gandhi family – will go to polls on May 7.
This year it started on January 13, when the leader of Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) Kumar Vishwas visited Kori to provide the family with an asbestos roof for the house that was until then lid with a tarpaulin sheet.
We are poor people. Our earning is hand to mouth. Dalits in this village struggle to feed their children and keep themselves clothed.
The poet-turned-politician, who is challenging Rahul Gandhi in the current elections, also mocked at Gandhi claiming that the millions of dollars spent on the development of Amethi “is not visible anywhere” and that Rahul’s visit to Kori’s house was mere “symbolism”.
Though Vishwas directed his tirade against Congress, his visit had SP unsettled.
Thirteen days later, the state’s cabinet minister and local legislator Prajapati appeared again at Kori’s house to donate her 1.85 lakh rupees (about $3,050) to build her house.
Kori says she does not have any choice but to accept political parties’ offer though she understands that the handout is meant to lure Dalit votes.
“Do we have choices to say no?” she asked while pointing at her mother-in-law who makes cords of grass to help sustain the family. “We are poor people. Our earning is hand-to-mouth. Dalits in this village struggle to feed their children and keep themselves clothed.”
Politicians from all parties may pledge to make lives of Jawaharpur Dalits better, but so far they have only visited them during election campaigns to make only promises, as in the words of Kori, “they then abandon us [Dalits] like my two-room-house that was built without a roof”.
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