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Vajpayee takes beef battle to Sonia

Mandi, Feb. 20: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee today launched his first election rally in Himachal Pradesh with a withering attack on the Congress for resorting to dirty propaganda just to win an election.

Vajpayee took strong exception to posters put up by Madhya Pradesh Congress workers alleging that he ate beef and told people in the poll-bound hill state to ask Congress chief Sonia Gandhi whether or not he did so.

“I am contesting elections since 1952, but never did I throw mud,” he said to cries of “shame, shame” from the audience that had a sizeable number of women.

The Prime Minister blasted the Congress for falling to “such depths”. He said he has written to Sonia to stop such malicious propaganda. “But I received no reply. If she comes to Himachal, please ask her,” he told the crowd at the picturesque Paddal grounds, surrounded by a cluster of hills.

“Do you think I eat beef'” he asked the gathering. “No, no,” the crowd chorused. “I would prefer to die than eat gomata,” the Prime Minister said.

Vajpayee indicated that soon cow slaughter would end throughout the country. He said export of beef was totally banned and “we are taking steps to stop it if it occurred in any place”.

The Prime Minister talked about his love for the state and reminded people of his summer sojourns in Manali. “Himachal is my second home. In Manali, I have a dera (house). Though I stay in Delhi, I often think about Himachal,” he said to cheers.

Snow and heavy rains have been lashing Himachal. The inclement weather had forced several top leaders, including Sonia, to reschedule their meetings. As if taking the cue from the elements, Vajpayee said Himachal had a great influence on Delhi. “If snow falls here, Delhi becomes cold. Today, I was not sure if snow will fall and the sky will become cloudy…. Now, I am told the weather is okay and I can address a rally in Shimla.”

The Prime Minister is scheduled to address a rally in Shimla later today and another one at Hamirpur, the constituency of chief minister Prem Kumar Dhumal. Mandi is the stronghold of Himachal Vikas Congress chief Sukh Ram, who had recently quit the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance to contest separately.

“I am in politics since the last 40 years not for power. I was in Opposition. I did not defect,” he said in a veiled attack on Sukh Ram, a former Congress communications minister. “I could have joined the Congress and become a junior, if not senior, minister in the (Jawaharlal) Nehru Cabinet. But I had a vision, a dream of India, secure, self-sufficient and happy India….”

“The Congress is lost. It does not know where to go,” he added.

Aware of the predominantly army background of Himachal voters, Vajpayee referred to the Pokhran nuclear tests, the Kargil war, cross-border terrorism and the way Pakistan rejected his hand of friendship. Referring to the sanctions in the wake of the nuclear explosions, he said those who had “opposed us are now coming to us”.

Vajpayee said Assembly polls were a challenge to democracy. There are different states and different people. “Vividha mein ekta hai (There’s unity in diversity).” The Prime Minister talked about the work done by the state government. Himachal’s record of female literacy is very good, he said, adding that if women are not educated, the country cannot develop. “Asmaan mein kaun gaya' Koi purush nahi. (Who went up to the skies, it was not a man.) A girl from Haryana (Kalpana Chawla) went…” he said.

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