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TV saint steals Advani show

New Delhi, Nov. 20: The relay fast was meant to mark L.K. Advani's return to agitational politics.

But as the BJP chief began his protest against Jayendra Saraswati's police remand, hoping to regroup his party's Hindutva base and also shore up his image, he found the ground slipping from beneath his feet and settling under that of Asaram Bapu.

The 63-year Bapu, the star of the Astha (faith) channel on television, was a big hit among the faithful and the fence-sitter who sat in the hub of the capital's anti-establishment politics on Patel Chowk to express 'solidarity' with the Kanchi seer.

Even hours after Advani had started his fast, with Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley for company, the Delhi BJP had managed to rustle up a crowd of barely a hundred. But as evening came and word got around that Bapu would conclude the function with his 'pravachan' (sermon) after Advani spoke, his followers arrived and provided a respectable strength.

As the evangelist with a white flowing beard spoke of how a 'conspiracy' was hatched to send the acharya who did no one any harm, not even 'the poor and the Muslims', the gathering turned emotional.

Barely audible at first, his voice reached a crescendo when he spoke of how even hardened criminals were not subject to the kind of 'treatment' the acharya has got. Men and women wept and offered spontaneous 'aartis'.

Tears flowed as the preacher spoke of how he could not bear to see millions of Indians 'suffer silently', which was why he had come 'running' for the BJP show. Of course, he added, he was 'apolitical'.

Interspersing his sermon with his trademark mantra 'Om Namah Bhagwate Vasudeve', Bapu said he would not yet invoke divinity to deliver 'justice' to the acharya but hope that those in power would have the 'wisdom and strength' to see sense.

The BJP will use its mascot from Gujarat for the rest of the agitation. Sources said Murli Manohar Joshi's show tomorrow would be a 'super hit' because it is a Sunday and Bapu's presence has already been publicised.

If Bapu did not overtly politicise his address, Advani was candid about the BJP's strategy to mingle religion with politics.

He mentioned Sonia Gandhi tangentially, took pot shots at 'secularists' and 'communists' and sounded the bugle against the Congress-led government.

He likened the acharya's arrest to the early days of the 1975 Emergency and warned that just as the Congress paid for it by losing power in the election that followed, it would be wiped out if it did not take a stand on this episode.

'Somebody here spoke of the intermingling of dharamshakti (religious power) and rajshakti (state power). I do not see any inherent divide between the two. Somebody told Mahatma Gandhi there was no link between religion and politics. He replied that he will have nothing to do with politics that is divorced from religion,' Advani said.

Asserting that the BJP was in politics to 'strengthen the core values' of India, Advani said if his party did not take up the acharya's 'cause', then its raison d'etre would be negated. 'That is why we have juxtaposed a dharna with a fast and bhajans with bhashan (speech).'

In a dig at Sonia, Advani said Bapu had devotees as far as in Italy and 'when in India, they never return to Italy unless he gives them darshan'.

He declared that the BJP would continue its relay fast until the acharya is sent to judicial custody.

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