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|October 1, 1999||
Sonia steals the thunder as showers smother Vajpayee wave
The fates were unkind to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee yesterday as a heavy downpour prevented his arrival in the prestigious Amethi parliamentary constituency, where his party expected him to match Sonia Gandhi's fire with his own brimstone.
Earlier in the day Sonia had addressed impressive rallies in different assembly segments of this constituency. But the chance was denied to Vajpayee to demonstrate his own clout. Lightning struck at the venue of his meeting killing a policeman on duty. Four other cops were injured when lightning burnt a tree barely 50 metres away from the dais.
Vajpayee was reportedly reluctant to come, having been put off by the recalcitrant weather, but owing to persistent pressure mounted by the BJP nominee Sanjay Singh, he finally gave in. But it was not to be. An hour-long downpour inundated not only the entire ground but also left the specially created helipad under knee-deep water, compelling the prime minister to eventually abandon his programme.
This came as a major setback for Sanjay Singh, who had apparently moved heaven and earth to put up a show of his lifetime. Clogged along the adjacent road were at least 1000 tractors, trolleys, trucks, buses and jeeps that had carted thousands of party supporters and the ordinary curious from different corners of the constituency to the venue.
The crowd started getting restive but refused to depart even as speaker after speaker assured them that the PM would make it to the venue despite the odds. "Atalji will land some distance away and then drive down. He will walk to this place if necessary," a senior Uttar Pradesh minister in a rush of enthusiasm declared over the mike.
But as time went by the crowd got impatient and began to leave the place. A flustered Sanjay Singh rose to speak but it was too late as the bulk of the gathering were determinedly headed home. For most of the time Singh addressed their backs before abruptly concluding his speech.
Sonia's day in her constituency, on the contrary, was truly eventful. Right from the morning, rally after rally addressed by her brought in huge crowds.
Her meeting in Amethi town turned out to be a big hit. Delirious crowds burst into frequent applause as Sonia went about reading her speech with finesse and eloquence. People were perched atop rooftops and trees and could be seen huddled even on the precarious cover of an overhead tank. The roads outside the Ramlila ground venue as well as the UP Roadways bus station next door were jam-packed.
The whole town was painted in the Congress tricolour and umpteen banners with slogans lauding Rajiv, Sonia and Priyanka emblazoned on them adorned every nook and corner.
There was thunderous applause from the audience as Sonia strode on to the dais with son Rahul. In their usual manner mother and son chose to reach out to the crowd and acknowledge their greetings when soon after the meeting they walked down the wooden barricades.
It was an eye-opener to see the attention with which her audience listened to her and the responsive manner in which they reacted whenever a pertinent point was made. Where Sonia scored over her BJP rivals was that she dwelled upon specific issues while the latter, in their own meetings, failed to rise above personal attacks.
Perhaps, Sanjay Singh's selection of the venue was largely responsible for yesterday's fiasco: an open field in the middle of nowhere and over half-a-kilometre away from the main road. It was an inappropriate venue during the monsoon. But perhaps Singh had bigger things in mind -- he was anticipating more than one hundred thousand people to attend the meeting.
Sure enough, Vajpayee could have made some difference to the otherwise dwindling support for Sanjay Singh. "We came here to listen to Vajpayeeji, now we are so disappointed that he was not able to come," quipped Ram Adhar who was leading a tractor-trolley load of villagers from neighbouring Musafirkhana block.
This was the only day that Sonia was to campaign in her constituency. The rest of the campaign is being handled by her daughter Priyanka who is already making waves. No doubt Sanjay Singh is so jittery.
It was Vajpayee's meeting that was, however, looked forward to if only because in a way it was the setting of a precedent: one prime ministerial contender cutting into the turf of the other.
But with the Vajpayee meeting abandoned the advantage is with Sonia. And she seems determined to drive it home. In Lucknow today she will be throwing the gauntlet at Vajpayee directly.
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