August 2, 2000


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A mild-mannered, non-controversial dalit leader.

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Syed Amin Jafri in Hyderabad

"It is an opportunity for him to prove his worth in bangaram (gold)," said a state Bharatiya Janata Party leader about the choice of Bangaru Laxman as party president.

Laxman will begin his three-year term from August 27.

The selection of the Union Minister of State for Railways has come as a pleasant surprise to state BJP leaders, who feel that Andhra Pradesh is "doubly blessed." Laxman is the first dalit leader and also the first from south India to hold the top post in the party.

Laxman, claim his admirers in the state BJP, is eminently suited for the job because of his "qualifications" as well as personal predisposition. The mild-mannered, low-profile, non-controversial Laxman has always shunned the limelight.

The 61-year-old leader is unassuming, unpretentious and soft-spoken, unlike the boisterous M Venkaiah Naidu, the party general secretary and Rajya Sabha member, who also hails from Andhra Pradesh. Indeed, Laxman's "gain" is Naidu's "loss" since the ambitious spokesman of the party was also angling for the top post. The fact that Naidu was never a member of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh may have gone against him.

State BJP leaders say that Laxman is a self-made man, who has come up the ladder due to his hard and selfless work both as a trade unionist and RSS activist. In fact, his RSS roots go back almost five decades. He enrolled in the outfit 1951 as a 12-year-old.

He joined government service in 1958 and also did his law degree. However, he quit his job in the accountant general's office in 1969 to join politics.

He started his political career with the Jan Sangh and served as secretary of its Andhra Pradesh unit from 1973 to 1977. When the Jan Sangh and other parties merged to form the Janata Party in 1977, he emerged as one of the key leaders in the state. He headed the state unit of Janata Party from 1978 to 1980. When the BJP was formed in January 1980, he became general secretary of the state unit. He held that post till 1985 and was elevated as state unit president in 1986. He completed his three-year term in 1988.

A trade unionist hailing from the backward Telangana region, Laxman also held various posts in Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh and headed the unions in several public and private sector units in the industrialist belt of Hyderabad, Rangareddy and Medak. However, Laxman did not enter the state assembly or the Lok Sabha for a long time as he unsuccessfully contested several elections. He made his maiden entry into state legislature in 1985 when he was elected to the Andhra Pradesh legislative council. He lost his membership when the council was abolished in 1986.

He shot into the limelight when he was picked up as the BJP nominee to contest against then Congress prime minister P V Narasimha Rao in the Lok Sabha bypolls from Nandyal in November 1991. This was his first encounter with the factional overlords of Rayalaseema.

Telugu Desam Party founder N T Rama Rao decided to support Narasimha Rao's candidature by not fielding his party's candidate on the ground that Rao was the "first Telugu bidda (son)" to hold the country's top-post. Laxman had to campaign against all odds and was routed by 580,000 votes.

However, soon after that he was made national president of Bharatiya Janata Dalit Morcha, the dalit wing of the BJP. He remained in the post for eight years. He also got elected to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat in April 1996. He also joined L K Advani during his rath yatra on the eve of the 1996 Lok Sabha elections.

In 1998, he was the front-runner for the BJP chief's post but lost out to Kushabhau Thakre at the last minute.

He was not named in the BJP ministries headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee after the 1996 and 1998 elections. He was fielded from Jalore (SC) constituency in Rajasthan in the 1999 Lok Sabha elections but lost to former Union home minister Buta Singh. However, he was named in Vajpayee Cabinet in October, 1999. He was initially appointed as minister of state in the ministry of planning and programme implementation. Sensing his unhappiness, he was moved to the railway ministry as minister of state.

Even when he was state BJP chief or Dalit Morcha president, Laxman scrupulously avoided controversies. He was quite accommodative to other leaders and groups. He has also been a votary of bigger role for the weaker sections -- dalits, adivasis, other backward classes, women and even the minorities - in the party organisation as well as in government.

However, though he espouses the cause of dalits and other weaker sections, he has been cautious not to challenge the caste equations or the domination of upper caste groups in the BJP. He prefers conciliation and compromise to confrontation and conflict. Consultation and consensus are the key to his style of functioning.

In November last year, when BJP MP A Narendra publicly lashed out at the party central leadership for ignoring his claims and appointing Chilakam Ramachandra Reddy from Rayalaseema as the state unit president, it was Laxman who was asked to sort out the issue. Laxman managed to quell the rebellion and ensure that no disciplinary action was initiated against Narendra.

In February this year, Laxman was "cornered" by newsmen for his "failure to get more projects" for his home state while his "senior" Mamta Banerjee had favoured her state with several projects. Asked whether he felt that the "big Didi " was bulldozing officials and not allowing junior ministers like him to function, Laxman laughed away the queries. "No. No. It is not like that. Didi has given several new projects to Andhra Pradesh. I am satisfied with what the state has got," he claimed.

Laxman is proficient in English, Hindi and Telugu. He also knows the Hindi heartland as much as the southern states. As the first south Indian president he will certainly help the BJP shed its image as a north Indian party.

He takes over the reins when five states, including Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, go to the assembly polls early next year. He has an arduous task ahead of him. He has to bring about closer cooperation and coordination between the government and the party.

He will also have to revamp the functioning of the party's frontal organisations and unions.

Among other things, he has to ensure better cohesion among the disparate constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, which means keeping key allies like N Chandrababu Naidu's Telugu Desam Party in good humour.

Laxman also has to see that there is no conflict between the national agenda of governance and the party's manifesto. His most difficult task, of course, is to reduce friction with other constituents of the Sangh Parivar - like the RSS, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, Bajrang Dal, Durga Vahini and Swadeshi Jagran Manch - which seem to be at loggerheads with the BJP too often. How he manages these conflicts will determine his success in the challenging post.

Incidentally, Laxman is not the first dalit politician from Andhra Pradesh to make a mark. It was way back in 1960 that Damodaram Sanjivayya became the first dalit chief minister of the state. In 1962, Sanjivayya also became the first dalit leader from the state to become All India Congress Committee president. Another dalit and trade union leader G Venkatswamy served in the Congress ministries at the Centre and had a stint as AP Congress Committee president. The Late Anantharamulu Mallu was yet another dalit leader who served as AICC secretary before being made APCC chief.

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