Biryani, onions, mangoes, poha, the importance of food in Indian politics has never been brought to a simmer, at least under the Narendra Modi government. When BJP leader and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath tried to divide Delhi voters on biryani, it was AAP chief Arvind Kejriwal’s aloo paratha that kept them together.
Just a few days before the national capital voted, Arvind Kejriwal reiterated his Delhi ka ‘beta’, middle-class identity on a talk show with Kitchen Tak, telling tales of sneaking out to have some golgappe and frequenting a Chinese joint in Connaught Place with his wife. And of course, the secret source of India’s cholesterol issue — our favourite breakfast, lunch and dinner choice — aloo ka paratha featured as his favourite food.
Kejriwal isn’t the first politician in India to turn to food to shape his public image. Indian politicians have found out that the way to a voter’s heart is through the tummy. But who would have imagined that a dish would be used as a potent weapon to undermine both a movement (Shaheen Bagh’s historic sit-in protests) and a candidate (Arvind Kejriwal)?
As seen in the Delhi assembly election, BJP members seem to be the only people in the world who dislike biryani.
A royal food, biryani (sans elaichi), is one of the most popular dishes in India, bringing us together irrespective of our class, caste, religion and food choices (yes, veg Biryani very much exists and is quite scrumptious).
So, when UP CM Ajay Singh Bisht a.k.a. Yogi Adityanath alleged during a Delhi election rally earlier this month that the AAP was serving biryani to protesters (also equating them with “terrorists”) in Shaheen Bagh, all that he had to face was a show-cause notice from the Election Commission. You see, not everything can be given a communal flavour and eating biryani at a protest definitely doesn’t give way to anarchy, but threatening illegal police encounters definitely does.
After AAP’s sweeping victory in the Delhi assembly election, Biryani sales spiked in the capital.
Food and caste politics
A friend of mine had once remarked that in India, everything is about caste. But I would be remiss if I overlooked food controversies in India, and the caste and religious connotations that are attached with them.
The Modi government’s notification in July 2017 on the ban on the sale of cows and buffaloes was termed as ‘food fascism’ by many and an attack on Muslims and Dalits.
Beef ban in some states in India has arguably adversely affected the historically poor and marginalised Dalit community, which has practised non-vegetarianism unlike the mostly vegetarian upper-caste Hindu community.
With Yogi Adityanath coming to power in UP in 2017, the state recorded 69 per cent of India’s total cases of cow vigilante violence against Muslims and Dalits, by the end of 2018. Yet, with all this uncontainable love for cows, India continues to be the biggest exporter of beef.
By taking a holier-than-thou stand on cow slaughter, the BJP has been smart with its beef politics; the party’s top-brass in 2017 promised people in the northeast and Kerala that beef ban won’t be applicable to them.
When the Lok Sabha was debating about rising onion prices in December 2019, our Brahmin Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman proudly proclaimed that she doesn’t come from a family where onion and garlic are consumed.
The finance minister should’ve been more careful with her tone-deaf, casteist statement on a commodity whose prices act as an inflation indicator, and have actually led to the downfall of governments in India.
Food figures in Indian politics on a daily basis
“Jabtak rahega samose mein aloo, tab tak rahega Bihar mein Lalu” is the state’s former chief minister Lalu Prasad Yadav’s most popular campaign line. Yadav’s rishta with food as a politician is a much talked-about relationship. When he was convicted in the Bihar fodder scam in 2013, his desire to eat ‘sattu’ — a flour-like food item made from chana — in the jail made headlines.
When Narendra Modi was selected as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the story of his humble beginnings as a ‘chaiwala’ made his life journey far more relatable and respectable than Rahul Gandhi’s dynastic roots, the former’s closest competitor in the election.
PM Modi has used food to his advantage many times. In September 2014, he even refrained from eating when he was at the White House during Navratri, another strong assertion of his religious identity.
The BJP, in the past, has infamously tried to associate pasta with Sonia Gandhi in a derogatory and racist fashion to reassert her Italian roots.
As recently as in January, BJP leader Kailash Vijayvargiya grew understandably suspicious of workers at his house and suspected them to be Bangladeshis simply because they were eating poha. In his eyes, it was probably very logical for him to have come to such a conclusion, so anyone who says otherwise, lacks logic.
India’s love for food is limitless, and the extent to which Indian politicians are ready to go the extra mile for politicising food is also boundless. Now it just remains to be seen which other food becomes politically incorrect in the coming days. For now, aloo ka paratha seems like a safe choice.
This article has been updated to reflect the correct statistic of UP recording 69 per cent of India’s total cases of bovine-related violence by 2018 ever since the Yogi Adityanath government came to power in 2017.