nitish modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar (right) in a file photo. In the middle is Bihar Governor Rajendra Arlekar. Image: X/@NitishKumar

Slurred speech, frequent gaffes: Has Nitish become a liability for BJP?

With incoherent, lacklustre speeches, Bihar CM is pulling his party, and NDA, down; opponents and allies alike wonder if he is in 'optimal mental health'

As the high-pitched election campaign reaches its crescendo in Bihar, a feeling is fast gaining ground – that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar could be turning into a liability for the BJP. It emanates from his unpredictable behaviour, gaffes and incoherent speeches at election rallies in the state.

In the past, Nitish used to be the star campaigner of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), and BJP leaders used to seek his consent before addressing election rallies in Bihar.

When Modi was 'banned'

When Narendra Modi was Gujarat Chief Minister, Nitish famously prevented him from campaigning in Bihar, saying there was no need for 'any other Modi' when the state had its own Modi (then Bihar Deputy CM Sushil Kumar Modi).

The JD(U) supremo was choosy about who would campaign and allowed only the likes of LK Advani, Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh, Shatrughan Sinha and Hema Malini to campaign in the state.

As Nitish consistently tried to woo Muslims, he had strongly opposed Narendra Modi’s visit to Bihar during the 2009 Lok Sabha elections and 2010 state assembly elections. He had categorically told the BJP leadership that campaigning by Modi in Bihar might cast a ‘negative impact’ on the electorate due to his Hindutva agenda. Even then, Modi was the most sought-after campaigner for the BJP and had toured 86 Lok Sabha constituencies across the country besides Gujarat.

Modi did not campaign for the BJP or NDA in any election after the Godhra riots of 2002 and before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, which he won and became Prime Minister.

Target, PM seat

Nitish nurtured prime ministerial ambitions and considered himself superior to Modi. In 2010, he took strong exception to his photograph with Modi in an advertisement in which he was shown holding the latter's hand aloft. Nitish was shown to be thanking Modi for Rs 5 crore in flood relief aid.

This iconic photograph, taken at a rally in Ludhiana in 2009, appeared in advertisements in Bihar dailies on the occasion of the BJP's national executive meeting in Patna. An infuriated Nitish cancelled the dinner scheduled for BJP leaders and returned the aid amount.

In the 2010 state assembly elections, Nitish had even prevented Varun Gandhi from campaigning in Bihar. Modi could enter Bihar only during the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign after Nitish drifted away from the NDA, in 2013.

As a star campaigner then, Nitish's content, narratives and issues raised would be loud and clear with definite promises and concrete measures for Bihar’s future. The people responded accordingly, reflecting the fact that he was in complete command of Bihar affairs.

Lacklustre campaign

Now, Nitish's election speeches are largely incoherent and lacklustre, devoid of content, and with no clarity on the cause for which he is seeking votes. His phrases are hackneyed, unclear and repetitive.

His characteristic pungent attacks on rivals are now missing. "Nothing happened in the past...I did a lot of work,” is his general refrain when he addresses the public.

There is no official word yet on the Chief Minister’s failing health, but the missing sharpness of his speeches, bloomers and forgetfulness suggest that all is not well with his physical condition. His speeches do not connect with the people and he has to be often pointed out when he commits blunders.

At an election rally in Nawada, where he shared the dais with the Prime Minister, he exhorted people to ensure the NDA's victory on '4,000 Lok Sabha seats'. Initially, he was heard fumbling 'Char lakh (four lakh)' before 'correcting' himself and saying 'chaar hazar se bhi jyada (more than 4,000)', much to the discomfiture of the Prime Minister, who has been seeking a 400+ tally this time.

After making the faux pas, Nitish was seen bending and stretching out his hands towards Modi’s feet before greeting him with folded hands. In a recent photograph, Nitish is seen bending towards the knees of Katihar MP Ashfaque Karim, who joined the JD(U) from the RJD after being denied a ticket by Lalu Prasad's party.

Inconsistent behaviour

His inconsistent behaviour at public rallies has come under the spotlight. It has led to criticism from his opponents and suspicion among his allies that he does not enjoy 'optimal mental health’ anymore. Many BJP leaders feel that Nitish is a liability now. People are smirking at his gaffes, providing the oppposition with fodder for criticism.

In fact, his inconsistent behaviour and gaffes were distinctively apparent even before he joined hands with the BJP in January this year. There was many a slip of the tongue in both houses of the state legislature. He was slammed for his gestures while speaking on the need to have safe sex to control population. He once lost his cool and used disparaging remarks against former Chief Minister Jitan Ram Manjhi during a debate in the Bihar assembly.

On one occasion, when he was still part of the Mahagathbandhan coalition with the Congress and the RJD, he called himself a ‘former Union Home Minister’, much to the consternation of BJP leaders, who alleged that he was betraying senility.

Focus on roadshows now

In view of the goof-ups and subsequent suggestions by the allies, the JD(U) has reportedly modified his mode of poll campaigns. He will address only a few public meetings and campaign mostly through roadshows. If any public meeting is necessary, he will read out written scripts instead of making impromptu speeches.

Termed 'Chanakya' for his political acumen, Nitish has won elections through his deft political moves, blending his carefully crafted secular image with pragmatic politics. His unassuming persona and a dignified aura around him have always singled him out among the political personalities of Bihar.

But the loss of his image from a star campaigner to an incoherent speaker may cause a negative impact on his party if it fails to repeat its 2019 performance in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

The septuagenarian leader has reached a stage where he faces the possibility of becoming the target of scorn and cynicism.

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