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Tuesday, 1 August, 2000, 15:24 GMT 16:24 UK
Lower caste chief for BJP
BJP leaders
The BJP has traditonally drawn on higher caste support
By Geeta Pandey in Delhi

India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has for the first time chosen a lower caste member to be the party's new president.

Bangaru Laxman, junior Minister for Railways, is the first member of the low caste Dalit community to head a major party.

He is also the first party leader from south India.

Mr Laxman will take over from the current president, Kushabhau Thakre, at the party's national council meeting in the central Indian town of Nagpur later this month.

Kushabhau Thakre
Outgoing party president Khushabhau Thakre
Bangaru Laxman says his job as the new president of the Hindu nationalist BJP will be to expand the party's base - both politically and socially.

Mr Laxman told the BBC that it is a very challenging job and that he hoped to do it successfully with the co-operation of everyone.

He says the priority of his new job will be to improve relations between the government and the party.

Broader appeal

BJP officials say Mr Vajpayee and his party advisors chose Mr Laxman to head the organisation - which represents mainly high-caste Hindus in northern India - in a bid to expand the party's political base.

Analysts say his selection will help reaffirm the BJP's social credentials and send out a message that the party leadership is not opposed to lower-caste Hindus in its ranks.

Mr Laxman, who is 61 years old, represents the moderate face of BJP, which is opposed to the philosophy of a theocratic state as propounded by the hardliners.

At the same time, he is known to be a committed worker of the RSS (or Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), the umbrella organisation for hardline Hindu organisations in India.

Prime Minister Vajpayee's policies - as head of the coalition government - have come under severe and sometimes, open criticism from BJP hardliners.

Analysts say one of Mr Laxman's main tasks will be to mend strained relations with the hardliners.

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