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Advani and allies root for Atal encore

New Delhi, March 29: If there was any doubt about who the BJP-led front’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2004 Lok Sabha polls will be, it was put at rest today.

At a rally here to mark five years of the National Democratic Alliance government, the focus was on Atal Bihari Vajpayee. From deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani to the coalition’s smallest partner, Akali Dal, all were unanimous that Vajpayee would again be projected as the mascot.

Pramod Mahajan, a former Union minister and now BJP general secretary, compared Vajpayee with Indian cricket’s reigning deity, Sachin Tendulkar. “Like Sachin’s record, nobody can break Atalji’s record,” he said.

A huge Vajpayee poster behind the dais said it all: “Under Vajpayee’s leadership, NDA completes five years.”

Exuding confidence that Vajpayee would rule the country for a “long time to come”, Advani said the NDA had dispelled people’s apprehensions about the longevity of coalitions at the Centre.

“Today, after completing five years and 10 days (of the NDA government) I can say with confidence that the country will be ruled by Vajpayeeji for a long time,” the deputy Prime Minister said.

He pointed out that the country had seen seven Prime Ministers in the last 10 years and added that Vajpayee’s biggest achievement was “boosting the self-confidence of the nation”.

The Prime Minister arrived midway through the rally at the Indira Gandhi Stadium. Trinamul Congress chief Mamata Banerjee offered him a white flower, while DMK leader and Union minister T.R. Baalu draped a white silk shawl round his shoulders. A gold plaque with an India map in silver encapsulating a portrait of Vajpayee, his head touching Kashmir and feet Kanyakumari, was presented to the Prime Minister at the end of the rally.

Besides Advani and Mahajan, others who spoke were NDA convener George Fernandes, BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu, Mamata, Chautala, Akali Dal chief Parkash Singh Badal, Baalu and Sharad Yadav of the Janata Dal (United).

“Atalji will remain atal and nobody can defeat him,” said Mamata.

Chautala said Vajpayee first became Prime Minister for 13 days, then 13 months and would now set a 13-year record.

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