| Atal Bihari Vajpayee with Asaram Bapu at the demonstration in Delhi on Monday. Picture by Rajesh Kumar
New Delhi, Nov. 22: The combined crowd-pulling capacity of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and faith TV channel Aastha ended up drawing less than a thousand to the capital's Patel Chowk as the BJP's relay fast against Kanchi seer Jayendra Saraswati's arrest concluded today.
Vajpayee's presence and address were meant to be the piece de resistance of the three-day agitation. This was bolstered by the appearance of former President R. Venkataraman, former Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar and former defence minister George Fernandes.
The stars of faith were also lined up. They included Asaram Bapu, Aastha regular Sudanshu Maharaj, Kapalik Mahakaal Bhairvanand Saraswati, a black-robed tantrik who consumes food served on human skull, and former BJP member of Parliament Swami Sureshanand.
However, the galaxy of personalities managed to fill just one-fourth of the kilometre-wide Patel Chowk area, which has witnessed much larger gatherings addressed by lesser mortals during the Mandal and mandir agitations.
The BJP had hoped that deploying a TV star cast would make the show a success and chose not to depend on the traditional repertoire of wild-eyed sants and mahants from Ayodhya and Hardwar. But the move backfired.
The agitation did not leave the faithful fulminating at the Kanchi seer's plight. The message that came through was that leaders opposed to Congress president Sonia Gandhi had again joined hands to send out the message that ' in Vajpayee's words ' 'we will not sit quiet until we bring in a government that confers equal respect to all religions'.
Mulayam Singh stayed away today, but his statement in Jhansi yesterday denouncing the manner in which the Kanchi seer was arrested and 'treated' in police custody was not without significance.
Chandra Shekhar said he was prompted to express solidarity because 'it is a question of Bharat's tradition and values and this episode will cast a dark shadow on its future'. Fernandes, on his part, said: 'The acharya's 50-year achievements are there for the country to see and these people have finished them off in an hour.'
Vajpayee suggested that the only reason for the former leaders getting together was 'to take to the streets'.
'Our friends are saying we are together on a common dais. We are not on a dais but on the streets,' said the former Prime Minister.
Vajpayee did not demand the withdrawal of the case against the acharya or a speedy trial, but the posters and banners put up by the BJP asked for his immediate release.
The BJP leader said that till the acharya was in jail, the party would find ways of venting its 'anger'. 'Our dharna may be coming to an end but our sangharsh (agitation) will go on,' he said.