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Ailing Atal has his day, too

New Delhi, Dec. 25: The new lion had drawn the big leaders away; the old lion in his winter was remembered by the man in the street.

The poor and well-off, young and old, Hindu and Muslim today lined up to greet Atal Bihari Vajpayee on his 83rd birthday.

Such a crush of visitors had looked unlikely in the morning’s cold light. The party mavens were away at Narendra Modi’s big swearing-in bash in Ahmedabad.

At 10.30am, 6A Krishna Menon Marg cast a desolate shadow before a handful of journalists, guards and a dozen supporters drawn mainly by curiosity. A group arrived from Outer Delhi to tut-tut at the “poor show”.

“It’s truly the end of the Vajpayee era,” sighed an elderly fan who had come from Lucknow.

The day clearly belonged to Modi and not a former Prime Minister who had played his innings, admirers whispered among themselves, wondering aloud if the party shouldn’t have tried to organise at least a token crowd.

As the sun cleared the mist, more and more people started arriving. Endless streams of cars suddenly appeared from nowhere. By 11.30, there were fears of a stampede. The crowd jostled near the security barrier, prompting announcements for patience and discipline.

Amid the bouquets, garlands and packets of sweets, there was a splash of green in some corners. Groups of Muslim well-wishers in traditional clothes had come to greet the BJP’s moderate face. While most carried flowers and perfumes, one group from Nizamuddin had brought a plaque bearing a message from the Quran.

Six young men had come cycling from Bangalore, crossing five states in 25 days.

Gradually, several middle-rung leaders and former ministers and MLAs trooped in, as did Sushma Swaraj who had given Gujarat a miss.

In the morning, the guards had let in news photographers but not reporters who might trouble the ailing Vajpayee by asking questions. Party spokesperson Prakash Javadekar lifted the ban on the condition that no questions would be asked.

Vajpayee was not in a position to take questions. He sat silently in a chair as the stream of visitors shuffled up to him and filed past with folded hands. He was in visible discomfort, somehow going through the rigours of the exercise.

The party bigwigs came in the evening, after the Ahmedabad celebrations were done.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, however, had dropped by in the morning, and President Pratibha Patil had sent a bouquet and a card. Modi had called up, too, before he took oath.

L.K. Advani, who had met Vajpayee last evening, was expected to come later tonight. Rajnath came with chief ministers Vasundhara Raje, Shivraj Chauhan and B.C. Khanduri. More leaders kept arriving till late evening.

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