| (Left) Manmohan Singh in Akola and Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Mumbai on Sunday. (PTI)
Oct. 10: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his predecessor Atal Bihari Vajpayee today rode into the heat and dust of poll politics in Maharashtra, one carrying a message from his mentor and the other trying to be a moderating foil to a partner prone to mimicry.
Staging his first solo act at a big-ticket campaign rally, Singh introduced himself to the audience in a Maharashtra town as Sonia Gandhi's 'messenger'.
The real message Singh delivered was a theme close to his heart as well: vote against the BJP alliance in Maharashtra so that the party will come to terms with its defeat in the Lok Sabha polls.
The Prime Minister has been stressing at public forums that the Opposition has not accepted the May election verdict and has been trying to put roadblocks before the new government.
Singh said so today, too. 'Even after four months, the Opposition has not reconciled to the fact that it has lost the mandate,' he told a rally for the October 13 Assembly elections. At another meeting in the state later in the day, he added: 'The Opposition was conspiring to pull down the UPA government from the day it has assumed power.'
The setting chosen to launch the Prime Minister as a campaigner was not an ideal one. At 1.30 pm, Akola town, on the western fringe of the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, was baking with the mercury touching 38 degree Celsius.
The crowd that turned up was predominantly urban ' from the middle class and the business community. The Congress could not marshal a rural audience probably because of an eleventh-hour rescheduling of the meeting from Saturday to Sunday.
'Brothers and sisters, today I have come to beg to you to strengthen the hand of Soniaji,' Singh told the rally.
Singh's speech was short on drama but high on specifics. 'I promise the people that I will visit Akola once a year to review the progress of the developmental work in the region in general and in Akola in particular.'
Immediately after referring to himself as Sonia's messenger, Singh touched upon a live-wire issue in the region -- farmer suicides.
Vajpayee, who addressed a meeting in Mumbai in the evening, was muted in his criticism of Singh's regime. His fellow campaigner Bal Thackeray tried to subdue his rabble-rouser instincts but did not quite succeed.
When the two shared a dais on the Shiv Sena leader's home turf at Shivaji Park, the crowd responded in full measure. Not so much to Vajpayee as to the Tiger. Thackeray regaled his captive audience with his trademark mimicry of Sonia Gandhi's statements and barbs at 'Bangladeshis'.
But Vajpayee seemed keen to send a message that the BJP did not share the Sena's world view of 'Maharashtra for Maharashtrians'. The stress also reflected the BJP's eagerness to woo back the huge Uttar Pradesh-Bihar migrant votebank, which had turned restive following a Sena campaign.
'We should protect diversity and see every community has equal rights. But equally, every community should fulfil its responsibilities too,' Vajpayee said. Today, Thackeray, too, mellowed his stand on the 'Uttar Bharatis'.