There is an element of desperation skirting the edge of rationality in Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s frenetic attempts to ban liquor consumption in Bihar.
Within a day of the Patna High Court striking down a notification on prohibition for being ultra vires the constitution, the state government drafted another law to replace the earlier one. On Saturday, the Supreme Court stayed the High Court verdict.
Since the new law is as draconian as the previous version, there is every likelihood of it being nullified as well.
It is anybody’s guess how long the chief minister will play this cat-and-mouse game with the judiciary with the possibility of being hauled up after a while for contempt of court.
But it is clear that the bee in his bonnet about prohibition will continue to make him act in what many will deem an unwise manner, not the least because some of the provisions in the law border on the bizarre.
These include the arrests of everyone in a house if a resident is found consuming liquor on the grounds of their complicity in the “crime”.
Since the relatives and associates of even murderers and rapists are spared such punishment, it is obvious that the Chief Minister is veering into the realm of the absurd.
However, his zealotry in the matter of prohibition can be easily explained. Unsure of his staying power in view of his minuscule base of support — the Kurmis (the caste to which Nitish Kumar belongs) make up a mere 4.3 per cent of Bihar’s population against the 14 per cent of the Yadavs, who are the supporters of the No.1 party in the Bihar coalition, Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) — Nitish Kumar apparently believes that he has to augment his acceptability among voters via another vote bank.
This is all the more so because the RJD demonstrated its clout when it secured the release on bail of its strongman, Mohammed Shahabuddin, while Nitish Kumar looked on helplessly and even suffered the ignominy of the dreaded don of the underworld saying that he does look upon him as the Chief Minister.
Before the Supreme Court sent the convict back to jail, it lambasted the state government for its supine role during his release.
In such circumstances, there is patently a need for Nitish Kumar to shore up his position. He could have done so by energetically pursuing the agenda of development, maintaining law and order and helping schoolgirls by providing them with cycles as he had done during his earlier tenures.
But an awareness that measures like these take a long time to bear electoral fruit appears to have persuaded him to choose the quick-fix solution of prohibition.
His belief is that the fulfilment of this poll promise will rally behind him large sections of women who have been victims of maltreatment by inebriated husbands.
Whether Nitish Kumar will reap an electoral harvest in 2020 on this count cannot be said for certain. But what is clear is that he will face a number of problems in the meantime.
For one, he is likely to run foul of the law. For another, his moralistic postures will be undermined by the government’s decision to offer tax relief to liquor manufacturers provided they sell their products outside the state.
Evidently, Nitish Kumar’s deep empathy for women stops at Bihar’s border. In view of the sops to the liquor lobby, he is now unlikely to persist with his campaign in favour of countrywide prohibition.
Moreover, Nitish Kumar’s reading of the social scene is flawed. First, not everyone who drinks beats his wife. Secondly, the phenomenon is confined mainly to the lower middle class, which means that Nitish Kumar’s purported base will be a limited one.
Thirdly, by his selective approach, he will be antagonising the males — both drinkers and non-drinkers and also those women who drink.
It is no secret that drinking has evolved in the last few decades into a social habit not only in the affluent cocktail circuit but also in urban middle class homes. The stigma associated with it a couple of decades ago has dissipated.
One of Nitish Kumar’s claims is that he is following Mahatma Gandhi’s diktat incorporated in the directive principles of the Constitution.
But not all of Gandhi’s views are worthy of emulation. These include his opposition to sending children to school, as noted by Amartya Sen in his book, “The Country of First Boys”, or maintaining a standing army, or the advice to husbands and wives to live like brothers and sisters, or ascribing the 1934 Bihar earthquake to the sinful ways of the countrymen.
Considering that the governments have been tardy in following other directives such as on living wages, equal pay for equal work, protection of children and youths against exploitation, and others, the emphasis on prohibition points more to a political purpose than a moral impulse, as also in the directives against cow slaughter and for enacting a uniform civil code.
Before Nitish Kumar hit what he thinks is a political jackpot, other states also tried prohibition. But only for limited periods, as in Haryana recently, till its negative side became apparent, including deaths from the consumption of illicit liquor.
There is little doubt that Nitish Kumar will learn the same lesson sooner or later.
(The author Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal.)