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BJP drive to plug Dalit gap

Rajnath Singh (left) welcomes Udit Raj after he joined the BJP in New Delhi on Monday. Picture by Prem Singh

New Delhi, Feb. 24: The BJP today welcomed a Dalit leader into the party and was in the process of sealing a tie-up with another, as it reached out to widen Narendra Modi’s acceptability and connect with the lowest rungs on the heartland’s social ladder.

Udit Raj, a former Indian Revenue Service officer, comes from Uttar Pradesh and belongs to the same caste as Bahujan Samaj Party chief Mayawati.

“We have not changed our thinking but are now sending out the correct message. Unlike other political parties, the BJP is the only party which believes in social harmony and the word untouchability does not exist in our dictionary,” BJP president Rajnath Singh said, welcoming Udit Raj into the party.

The BJP has also been trying to get Lok Janshakti Party chief Ram Vilas Paswan to join the NDA.

Paswan, a Dalit leader, has a substantial base in Bihar.

Sources said the BJP, widely believed to be a party dominated by the upper castes, had realised that it needed to slice into the backward and Dalit bases of regional parties if its national ambitions were to come true.

Although the party has been projecting Modi’s backward-caste origins, what it lacked, the sources said, was Dalit faces in the two heartland states that together account for 120 Lok Sabha seats.

Udit Raj, who had sought to challenge Mayawati by floating his Indian Justice Party but couldn’t achieve much, said the BJP wasn’t against Dalits and had assured him it would safeguard the interests of backward castes.

Earlier, the BJP had gifted the lone Rajya Sabha berth from Maharashtra to Dalit leader Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party of India, denying senior leader Prakash Javdekar a re-nomination.

Neither Udit Raj nor Athawale has a wide support base in their states. But the sources said the BJP was keen on using the Dalit faces as a sign of Modi’s acceptability.

The BJP is now trying to get LJP chief Paswan on board. Paswan, once part of the NDA, had cited the Gujarat riots to leave the alliance. If he ties up with the BJP now, it would be a boost for Modi who can then flaunt the alliance to counter the tag of “untouchability”.

“If the court has given a clean chit to Modi, there is no point debating it,” Paswan’s son Chirag said today, clearly hinting that the LJP was on its way to sealing a pact with Modi.

Chirag, who had met Rajnath two days ago, has been negotiating on his father’s behalf along with Paswan’s brother Pashupati Paras.

BJP sources indicated that the alliance with the LJP had been virtually sealed and could be announced within a day or two and that last-minute negotiations over seats were on. While the BJP does not want to spare more than six seats, the LJP is bargaining for more.

Bihar leaders Sushil Kumar Modi and Nand Kishore Yadav were in Delhi to give the final touches to the alliance talks. The leaders met Rajnath and later called on L.K. Advani.

Paswan has remained aloof, beyond the reach of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad and the Congress.

“He has deliberately made himself incommunicado,” said an LJP leader. “He is afraid that Congress president Sonia Gandhi might try to win him over.”