Even as bomb disposal squad members swept every inch of Gandhi Maidan, finding five unexploded devices, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar was about 90 km away in Rajgir. Barely two days after serial bomb blasts in his capital city killed five and injured nearly a hundred, the chief minister perhaps thought it was felicitous to drown his worries in wisecracks and witticisms. Why was Modi mopping his brow so much? So what if I didn't start as a chai wallah, I'm still a common man. If Gujaratis enjoy their ice cream, why's Modi's language not sweeter?
His speech yielded the nervous laughs and applause he must have been expecting from his audience, all Janata Dal members, socialists and lohiaites no less. But the rest of the country watching on television was less amused. His stand-up act in the face of a serious intelligence failure, security lapse and amid allegations that his government has for too long gone soft on terror training modules in Darbhanga and neighbouring areas was, to say the very least, inexplicable.
Maybe the chief minister's speech writers can explain.
Arrogant, he said of the BJP's christening of their rally as 'hunkar' or war cry. What would you call his decision to speak for almost an hour and dismiss the blasts and the loss of life in two lines of perfunctory condemnation and pain?
Five Bihari men died, the numbers could have easily been greater, but the chief minister did not deem it fit to discuss the Janata Dal's commitment to fighting terror and dismantling the Darbhanga module of the Indian Mujahideen. Nitish Kumar has in the past protested the coining of the term 'Darbhanga module'. How can you justify naming a terror module after the people of a region, he has asked, inviting criticism that he has been unwilling to take on the terror training grounds in districts including Darbhanga, Samastipur, Madhubani and other areas.
The party insiders' meeting was an ideal one to come clean on this policy. But Nitish squandered an opportunity to discuss the party's wooing of minorities, perhaps even make the point that his commitment to the welfare of the minorities does not translate into appeasement, that his government will crack down on fringe elements and extremists and terrorists, regardless of their religion.
Contrast that with the crystal clear message from Modi. He's abandoning his hard line hindutva image he said, maybe not in so many words but it was amply clear anyway. Feel free to disbelieve, mock him as a turncoat, but you can't deny that the message is clear. What was your CM's message again?
We are willing to buy your argument that this was not meant to be an address to the nation, but a booster shot for his cadre at the party's annual chintan shivir or gathering for introspection. Was that achieved?
Let us assume that a leader of Nitish's expertise and experience actually imagined that a televised speech running almost 65 minutes, barely two days after serial bomb blasts in his state and amid election season, can be viewed as a minimal message to party workers only.
Even so, the speech was way off the mark. The Janata Dal (United) in Bihar is crippled by fractious leaders-- Shivanand Tiwari's outburst in favour of Modi just before Nitish's speech is only one example. A Lok Sabha bypoll was lost embarrassingly, party MPs have raised the flag of rebellion. Nitish himself will attend a Left-sponsored meet in New Delhi today, despite his quiet overtures to the Congress. Party chief Sharad Yadav, for his part, appears committed to a third front of some sort. but Nitish chose neither to dwell on the party's vision for 2014 nor on possible alliances and other practical aspects of politicking in his address to party workers. Surely, party building is not to be achieved by a singular focus on Modi-bashing?
Finally, did anybody advise Nitish on a sense of judgment and a sense of timing, when to play to the gallery and when to play statesman?
Democratic institutions and people who run them have a responsibility to tolerate, even appreciate, differences. From the constituent assembly and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel whose legacy leaders are now squabbling over, Indian history has had a tradition of valuing merit in diverse thinking.
And a party meeting in the aftermath of a serial bombing was perhaps the best opportunity to display some wisdom, express gratitude that the live bomb found below the dais did not explode, that some of the BJP's top leadership who were on the stage then, his allies until very recently, returned home safe from Bihar? He could have express commiserations to the thousands of Bihari people, mostly BJP supporters, who walked home in cold fear on Sunday. not reaching out to those who cheered for Modi smacks of the attitude that these are dispensable voters, an attitude that is certain to backfire on Nitish.
Nitish, who reportedly fancies his chances as a prime ministerial candidate, displayed what he and his speech writers are yet to learn.