Taking the battle to Prime Minister Narendra Modi's turf, Congress President Sonia Gandhi led a massive roadshow in Varanasi on Tuesday, kicking off the party's campaign for the 2017 Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, where it is out of power for nearly three decades.
Sixty-nine-year-old Gandhi, however, had to cut short the roadshow towards the fag end of the eight-km march route this evening after she fell ill as it wound through the streets of the temple town for nearly three hours.
Congress sources said Gandhi cancelled her planned visit to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in the evening to offer prayers and was returning to Delhi.
The sources said that Gandhi was suffering from viral fever but had decided to go ahead with the roadshow as she was not inclined to cancel it at the last minute.
Modi prayed for Gandhi's quick recovery and good health.
"Heard about Sonia ji s ill health during her Varanasi visit today. I pray for her quick recovery and good health," he tweeted.
The roadshow, which continued for about three hours, was halted for some time at the Lahurabir roundabout near the end of the march, from the Circuit House to Englishia Line. The roadshow later proceeded without Gandhi. Thousands of Congress supporters and workers took part in it.
The sources said Gandhi complained of uneasiness and after taking rest for sometime, she left the area. It was Gandhi's first visit to Varanasi after Modi became Prime Minister in May 2014.
The march began with Gandhi garlanding the statue of B.R. Ambedkar at the Circuit House and the marchers criss-crossed lanes and by-lanes of the temple town.
Gandhi, who was initially travelling in a car and later moved to a vehicle with an open sunroof, waved at the crowd, which cheered and raised slogans against the Modi government.
She came out of her vehicle several times to accept the greetings of the cheering supporters, including groups of Muslim women. As the roadshow passed through several localities, rose petals were showered on Gandhi and her cavalcade from adjoining buildings.
Dozens of mini trucks prominently displayed posters, with '27 Saal, UP Behaal' (27 years of UP's distress) written on them. Placards carried by hundreds of workers also had the same slogan written on them. The Congress has been out of power for 27 years in Uttar Pradesh and is projecting that the state has gone from bad to worse in these years through the '27 Saal, UP Behaal' campaign.
The Congress has also launched a "Dard-e-Banaras" campaign to highlight the lack of development in Varanasi, which Modi is representing for over two years in the Lok Sabha.
Besides the party's chief ministerial candidate Sheila Dikshit, AICC General Secretary Ghulam Nabi Azad, state party chief Raj Babbar and senior leaders Pramod Tiwari and Sanjay Singh accompanied Gandhi. Babbar expressed the hope that there will be a "miracle" in favour of his party in the elections.
Earlier, Gandhi had flown in for a day-long programme in Modi's constituency and was led by hundreds of bikers, waving party flags, from the airport to the heart of the city.
Babbar later said that Gandhi had come to Varanasi while she was running fever and insisted that she would go ahead with the visit. During the roadshow, Gandhi felt exhausted and was told by doctors not to continue with her programme, he said.
The Congress President also wanted to visit Kashi Vishwanath temple before returning to Delhi but was told not to do so, he added.
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