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VIP health cloud on Sena poll pulse

New Delhi, Oct. 3: 'Ill health' has claimed the first phase of Maharashtra poll campaign by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Bal Thackeray, dealing a blow to the BJP-Shiv Sena alliance.

The former Prime Minister, scheduled to address six public meetings on October 4, 5, 6 and 9, cancelled his first two rallies following pain in his knees, BJP sources said.

The Sena chief said in the party mouthpiece Saamna: 'Due to ill health, I am not able to conduct my scheduled tour of Marathwada and Vidarbha regions.'

'I cannot participate in the entire election campaign and my public rally at Jalna in Marathwada and Darava in Vidarbha that was finalised could not be conducted,' Thackeray added.

Their rivals, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and her Nationalist Congress Party counterpart Sharad Pawar, however, are on course to address joint rallies in Parabeni in Marathwada and Nashik in north Maharashtra on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is scheduled to interact with Mumbai Pradesh Congress office-bearers on Wednesday.

Thackeray: Out of show

On the curtailment of Vajpayee's and Thackeray's campaigns, circles close to the Sena say Thackeray may be trying to gain sympathy like Pawar did during the Lok Sabha polls in April-May. The NCP chief had to heavily trim his campaign because of an ailment in the mouth.

Another uncharitable view is that the BJP-Sena has already conceded defeat and the top leaders, seeing the writing on the wall, have decided against sticking their neck out.

Downplaying the issue, alliance sources said Vajpayee will address the remaining meetings and Thackeray the rallies in Thane and Mumbai in the last phase.

Dubbing the development 'unfortunate', BJP in-charge of Maharashtra Pramod Mahajan said in Mumbai: 'To us, their health is more important than anything else.'

The BJP-Sena managers are still trying to work out joint rallies of Thackeray with Vajpayee and with .K. Advani.

The leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha will address 12 meetings in four days, and BJP chief M. Venkaiah Naidu on five days.

Sushma Swaraj will address 28 rallies in seven days and Uma Bharti 15 rallies in five days.

Mahajan and his brother-in-law Gopinath Munde, the state BJP chief, will address the most meetings. Mahajan will lead the pack with 71 rallies across the state and Munde will follow with 60.

The party's star campaigners and chief ministers, too, will be pressed into service.

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