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Two days after he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi seemed to have settled into the role comfortably, talking about a range of national issues — ties with neighbours, terrorism, defence and even secularism — at a crowded public meeting here on Sunday.
People turned up in huge numbers to hear the Gujarat CM address an ex-servicemen’s rally, his first after the nomination, in this small Haryana town, 100km from Delhi. “No camera can capture this crowd. This is a call for change. Haryana has challenged the Delhi Sultanate,” Modi said to a full house and loud cheers.
People had spilled into the media area. Many even climbed the poles supporting the canopy covering the packed venue.
On many occasions, police were forced to physically push back the crowd, fighting each other for a glimpse of the BJP strongman.
No other senior BJP leader attended the meet where Modi ruled the hoardings as well, with a picture of Parliament making the background for his close-ups. Even in posters, party patriarch LK Advani, who stands isolated in his opposition to Modi’s candidature, was cut to size.
The Gujarat CM, however, played the statesman in his hour-long speech. There were no jibes at the Prime Minister or the Congress chief Sonia Gandhi and even Pakistan was spared the usual venomous attack.
“I want to tell Pakistan’s rulers: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh should fight against poverty and illiteracy if they want to fight. Terrorism and the gun didn’t help Pakistan in 60 years,” he said.
But, he did reserve some ammo for the UPA, criticising it for its “soft” response to Pakistan and China’s aggression along the borders. “Is it the army’s weakness? The problem is not on the border; it is in Delhi.”
Looking to strike a chord with mainly a rural crowd, Modi once again talked about his humble beginnings. As a child, he served tea to soldiers heading to the front at the Mehsana station (in Gujarat) in 1962 during the China war, he said.
Calling army the best example of secularism, Modi attacked the UPA for suggesting a headcount of Muslims after the Sachar Committee report on disadvantages faced by the minority community in the country. He lauded the army for rejecting the proposal.
Reaching out to former soldiers, Modi asked the government to bring out a White Paper on ex-servicemen’s demand for “one rank one pension”. With special training, soldiers would bring greater Olympic glory for the country, Modi said, acknowledging shooter Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore who shared the dais with him. A silver medallist at the 2004 Olympics, Rathore voluntarily retired from the army recently to join the BJP. Former army chief VK Singh, who had many run-ins with the UPA government during his tenure, was seated next to Modi.