The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Atal learns to bat on Kaif pitch

Maharajganj (Uttar Pradesh), March 22: Atal Bihari Vajpayee today sought to mix cricket with politics to try and recover lost ground for the BJP in its former stronghold of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Speaking at his second election rally in the state, the Prime Minister said: “Some good cricket has been played by our cricketers in Pakistan. There is one of your sons, Mohammad Kaif, who did a splendid job yesterday.”

Referring to the Lahore one-dayer that Kaif helped India win by five wickets, Vajpayee added: “He (Kaif) stretched out his hand and the ball was in his grip. He hit the balls outside boundaries, changing the colour of the game. And remember, he is from Uttar Pradesh (Kaif hails from Allahabad).”

Expressing happiness that Kaif’s home state is also his political home-turf, the Prime Minister switched to a mock serious tone. “The captain (Sourav Ganguly) had come to get my blessings before going to our neighbouring country. I said I did not know how to hold a cricket bat properly. How can I bless you'” said Vajpayee to roars of laughter from the crowd at College Maidan.

“…Look at me. This man does not know how to hold a cricket bat and he has become a Prime Minister.… Now watch out for the future of this cricketer Kaif. God knows how big a person he would be in future.”

Recalling his meeting with Sourav, Vajpayee said: “I told the captain you have to win the match and win the hearts of the people. He has done both.” The Prime Minister rang up Sourav after the match to say: “You have lived up to my expectation, you have won both.”

Having praised Kaif, Vajpayee welcomed the changing mood among Muslims. “A change is taking place among the Muslim citizens of the country. Earlier, confusion used to be created about us (BJP). They used to be farthest from us. Now there are less hostilities and Muslims are getting convinced that we are also their well-wishers. We are in a position to protect them.”

“After a long time, peace is settling down on the border. There are improvements in our relations with the neighbouring country. Inside our country, we are in the process of improving our relations with the minorities,” Vajpayee said.

He decided to hold a rally here in the heart of eastern Uttar Pradesh because the BJP’s importance in the region has been declining. The party won 19 out of 32 Lok Sabha seats from this region in 1996, but triumphed in just 14 seats three years later. It suffered major reverses during the 2002 Assembly polls as well. The BJP has also been alarmed by the big crowds Sonia Gandhi’s recent roadshow attracted in the region.

Party leaders mobilised a number of Muslim villagers for today’s rally.

The Prime Minister arrived here this afternoon from Gorakhpur where he held a meeting with BJP workers and senior leaders like Vinay Katiyar, Kalyan Singh and Rajnath Singh.

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