- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 15, 2009

NEW DELHI (AP) - A leading “untouchable” politician vowed Sunday to take her party national in India’s upcoming elections and challenge the country’s two establishment parties.

Mayawati, who goes by one name, has made clear her ambition to be India’s next prime minister. Her Bahujan Samaj Party has emerged as a major force in Indian politics, winning control of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

Mayawati is a Dalit, or “untouchable,” who are the social outcasts at the bottom of India’s complex caste system.

While caste discrimination has been outlawed for more than a half century, and a quota system was established with the aim of giving Dalits a fair share of government jobs and places in schools, most remain almost destitute, kept down by ancient prejudice and caste-based politics.

Addressing a news conference, Mayawati said her party will contest the elections in April and May “all alone, in all the states.”

While the party will run on its own, Mayawati said she was open to forming a coalition after the elections to ensure the ruling Congress party and the Hindu nationalist opposition Bharatiya Janata Party are kept out of power.

Mayawati rose to power in Uttar Pradesh in 2007, forming a powerful alliance of Dalits and high-caste Hindu Brahmins, to force out Mulayam Singh Yadav, the state’s former chief minister, whose own support was rooted among middle-caste farmers.

But so far she has failed to replicate her success in other state elections.

Mayawati’s comments Sunday were widely viewed as an attempt to position herself at the head of a newly formed alliance of Communist and regional parties, known as the “Third Front.”

Mayawati and leaders of the alliance were expected to meet later Sunday. She denied the meeting would discuss the Third Front’s candidate for prime minister, saying it was just an “informal meeting of parties” opposed to Congress and the BJP.

The Congress party, elected in 2004, heads a broad coalition. It was previously supported by Communist parties but lost their backing because of a civilian nuclear deal with the United States.

Congress’ prospects for re-election are unclear. Its major accomplishment _ India’s rapid economic growth in the last few years _ has been hit hard by the global downturn. It has also faced criticism for the bungled handling of the Mumbai terror attack in November, when 10 gunmen rampaged through the city for three days, killing 164 people.

However, their main opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is also in disarray. Its leadership is aging and fragmented, and its anti-terror line was criticized as being too harsh in the wake of the Mumbai attacks.

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