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Nitish Kumar should focus on law and order

 

By Amulya Ganguli

 

Another icon is failing. Up until Nitish Kumar’s success as leader of the mahagathbandhan (grand alliance) in Bihar last year, his stars were on the ascendant. However, there was nothing surprising about his rise. His electoral victories in 2005 and 2010 were against an opponent like Laloo Prasad Yadav who was mired in malfeasance and misgovernance. It was a cakewalk, therefore, for the Janata Dal – United (JD-U) leader. Moreover, Nitish Kumar’s successes in those years were achieved in the company of the BJP, which contributed its share of the upper caste votes to the BJP-JD-U combine.

But once Nitish Kumar broke with the BJP, he stumbled badly in 2014 and thought that it would be best for him if he resigned as chief minister to regain his bearings. To his  credit, it didn’t take long for him to recover. But he could only do so by taking the help of his former adversary, Laloo Prasad, who brought the support of the Yadavs, who comprise 14 per cent of Bihar’s population, to Nitish Kumar’s side.

But the marriage of convenience is now revealing its unsavoury aspects. Realizing that a support base of his caste brethren, the Kurmis, who make up a mere 3.8 per cent of the population, is not enough to challenge Laloo Prasad, Nitish Kumar has decided to court another vote bank – that of women.

The bouquet which he is offering the women is prohibition. The chief minister apparently believes that by sacrificing Rs 4,000 crore of annual excise revenue at the altar of moral rectitude, he will considerably strengthen his political position. So much so that he is now promising to bring about a Sangh-mukt and sharab-mukt Bharat – a nation free of the Sangh parivar and liquor.

But he is making a mistake. The pitfalls of prohibition have been known since the 1920s when it gave rise to Al Capone and the Mafia in America as they illegally catered to the demand for drinks.The same thing happened in Morarji Desai’s Bombay – as the city was known in his time – with the appearance of various “dons” who built their empires on smuggling.

It is not only the revenue loss about which Bihar will have to worry, but also the criminalization of the liquor trade via bootlegging, the corruption of the police and excise departments and the conversion of law-abiding social drinkers into liars in front of inspectors.

Moreover, as the industrialist, Adi Godrej, has pointed out, bans can hurt the economy. If prohibition projects India as a country of killjoys, thereby keeping out foreign tourists, the restriction on the eating of beef can saddle the peasants with the woes of maintaining worthless cattle and starve the leather industry of raw material.

Nitish Kumar’s policy has another disadvantage. A vote bank inevitably pits the favoured group against a rival – Dalits against the upper castes or the Muslims against Hindus. In this particular case, men as a group will regard themselves as being unfairly stigmatized for the drunkenness and loutish behaviour of a few.

Since women, too, drink nowadays more widely than before, they, too, will believe that they are unnecessarily having to pay a price for the indignities suffered by the women of abusive husbands who are not large in number.

In their eagerness to acquire a new vote bank, proponents of prohibition like Nitish Kumar, Jayalalitha, Karunanidhi and Oommen Chandy do not realize that drinking has become a much bigger social phenomenon than, say, half a century ago when Devdas characterized the typical drinker in the eyes of the middle class. Now, it is not only the men and women of the upper strata who belong to the so-called cocktail circuit who are fond of their sundowners, almost every middle class home maintains a stock of liquor and wine.

If Nitish Kumar believes that he will become the new hero of the “secular” parties by wearing a halo of moral rectitude by championing the cause of prohibition, he is barking up the wrong tree.

His USP from 2005 was not prohibition, but a strict enforcement of law and order. However, his present focus on banning alcohol is apparently leading to the return of the “jungle raj” which was associated with Laloo Prasad’s reign by himself and his wife, Rabri Devi, from 1990 to 2005.

It will be a pity if Nitish Kumar throws it all away by chasing a policy which several states have tried – Haryana being the last one – and found wanting. A leader cannot gain in popularity only by trying to secure the support of selected groups, but by looking at the population as a whole and considering how his policies will help the economy to prosper, thereby providing the necessary funds for roads, electricity, health centres, schools and so on.

Since it is doubtful if Nitish Kumar’s prohibition will help to lift Bihar out of its BIMARU or sick status, he is likely to go down as another man who disappointed his admirers by pursuing a flawed policy. (IPA Service)

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