Friday 13 November 2020

Moral Policing Wrecked Nitish Kumar's Tally in Bihar (Sunday Guardian)



The dent in the finances of the state because of the liquor ban caused a reduction in government programs and job creation. At the same time, instead of becoming weaker, the liquor lobby has been celebrating the onset of Prohibition.

New Delhi: Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar made an advantageous move in 2017 when he joined hands with the BJP after a lapse of four years. Both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President J.P. Nadda had made it clear before the Assembly elections that whatever the balance of seats between the JDU and the BJP, Nitish Kumar would continue as the Chief Minister if the alliance secured a majority. This promise has been kept in spite of the poor performance of the JDU, the government led by which was rescued by the continuing mass appeal of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That it was the charisma and credibility of the PM that powered the JDU-BJP alliance to victory in Bihar is obvious. It helped that J.P. Nadda has shown himself to be a capable chief of the party that is a close rival of the Chinese Communist Party in being the largest political organisation in the world. Certainly the BJP is by far the largest party in any democracy, a position it reached during the tenure in office of former BJP President Amit Shah. The decision in 2013 of the central leadership of the BJP to choose Modi as the standard bearer for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls was responsible for the party securing a majority in the 2014 polls after a gap of three decades when no party had that distinction. Not even the party that has ruled India for the longest period, the Indian National Congress, which since 1999 has been led by Sonia Gandhi. That feat by the BJP was repeated in 2019, indicating that a plurality of voters still had faith that Modi is the leader who can ensure a better future for them. It is that faith which has ensured yet another term for Nitish Kumar, who is thereby edging closer to Jyoti Basu’s record, he having been the Chief Minister of Bengal for 23 years. Unfortunately for Bihar, the tenure of Nitish Kumar has given evidence of a strong strain of moral policing. In the past, supporters of then CM of Kerala, A.K. Antony had created a halo of rectitude around the non-smoking, non-drinking vegetarian, who gave up his bachelorhood much later in life than is usual. However, even the politician who was nicknamed “Saint Antony” by his friends did not seek to go forward as CM with moral policing in the manner that Nitish did.


Since 5 April 2016 any individual in Bihar caught with a bottle or even a glass of alcohol faced imprisonment for a minimum of 10 years, and even a life sentence. While such punishment is and should be the norm for horrendous crimes such as those carried out by child predators and serial murderers, Bihar should enter the Guinness Book of Records by the way the state has mandated a similar penalty simply for the consumption of liquor. Perhaps because he was not at the time an ally of the BJP, but of the RJD, there was scarcely a protest from the human rights lobby at the disconnect between crime and punishment that was the brainchild of the CM of Bihar. Hundreds and later thousands of tipplers began to crowd prisons in Bihar as a consequence of the Prohibition Law. The furore caused by this among the people resulted in a small relaxation of the policy in 2018, but not before immense harm had been done to the social and economic fabric of a state that is situated in the fertile Gangetic plain and yet is among the poorest in the Union of India. The relaxation in the liquor law came a year after the JDU entered into the alliance with the BJP in 2017 that has ensured security of tenure for the Bihar CM ever since. The CM has thus far refused to reverse the Bihar liquor law. In his view, the ban will (a) reduce domestic violence, not an unusual event in a still largely patriarchal society, (b) finish off the political and financial clout of the liquor lobby in the state, and (c) raise the poor of his state out of poverty by saving the money they would otherwise spend on alcohol. All three assumptions are wrong. Unfortunately, when the moral police instincts of the Bihar CM were given full rein in the 2016 liquor law, those around him did what they normally did when faced with such a situation, which was to applaud the CM for his action rather than sound a note of caution. When a politician gathers around him only such people as nod their heads at whatever he or she says, that individual will soon get into trouble. The ability to listen to opposing views and to ensure that a multiplicity of opinions is presented before a decision gets taken is crucial to good governance.


In several households, liquor has long been a not uncommon element of daily consumption, including among the poor. In Bihar, the underprivileged there work for more than ten hours each day, and return to their shanties with aching and tired limbs. In that state, the minimum wage and maximum permitted hours of work are ignored by several who employ casual labour, although presumably this information was not brought to the attention of the Chief Minister’s Office. A tot of liquor costing about Rs 30-40 was consumed by such labourers every day on their return home, to dull the aches and to escape from the miseries of everyday existence at least for a while. For truck drivers, a dose of liquor is useful in ensuring sleep after a gruelling day spent on choked roads, rowdy traffic. This is especially the case if the truck being driven is itself in poor condition, again not uncommon in several parts of the country, but very prevalent in Bihar. The Chief Minister of Bihar may not have ever consumed a drop of liquor in his life, but that is not reason enough to seek to impose his preferences on the rest of the population in such a drastic fashion. Several who were poor could not do without their daily dose of pain balm they took to enable a temporary escape from reality. They now had to spend Rs 210-240 or more daily rather than the earlier amount of Rs 30-40. That too for liquor that may be spurious, as it is supplied by bootleggers and smugglers rather than by approved outlets as earlier. This extra spending on alcohol has left much less money for household needs such as food, schooling and clothing. Because of the additional cost plus the fact that Nitish had proclaimed in speech after speech that it was because of pressure from women that he had passed such a law, beatings in the home have increased rather than been reduced by the measure. Despite such facts, more than a few analysts and commentators remarked on the women’s vote that Nitish was seen by them as receiving in the early stages of counting, when the JDU was doing well. Such analyses showed their disconnect from the ground situation. Judging by the results, the CM lost much of that vote but was lucky that women in Bihar still have immense confidence in Prime Minister Modi. This enabled the JDU to remain a force in the state Assembly, albeit behind the RJD and the BJP.


The dent in the finances of the state because of the liquor ban caused a reduction in government programs and job creation. At the same time, instead of becoming weaker, the liquor lobby has been celebrating the onset of Prohibition. They are making extortionate profits from the shortage of alcohol. Prices have risen by more than four times, only this time the extra amount is in black and outside the ambit of Central and State taxes. As a consequence, Central revenues also suffered because of the CM’s moral policing. Certainly alcohol is best avoided, but the way to achieve abstinence is for Nitish Kumar to dress in the simple manner of the Mahatma and go about on foot from village to village preaching the virtues of temperance. Setting the police loose on those who do not share his moral principles and preferences in liquid refreshment is another example of the manner in which laws and regulations in India have been used to try and change even such forms of social behaviour as are non-threatening to others. Had the Chief Minister stiffened the penalties for violence under the influence of alcohol and the creation of a public fracas by the inebriated, the response to the liquor ban would not have been so profound. The best way to reduce the influence of the liquor lobby is to go the Tamil Nadu way and ensure that authorised sales are made at reasonable prices to the poor. Unlike in the case of Bihar, the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu does not regard it as part of the duty of the state government to prescribe or proscribe lifestyles, dress or diet.

Another loss to Bihar was the fall in tourism. Fewer footfalls took place in a state where even consuming a bottle of beer could lead to a long and uncomfortable stay at state expense. Marriages began to move out of the state, given that alcohol is often part of the celebrations. In Gujarat, another “dry” state, several marriage invitations include receptions in nearby Daman for reasons that are obvious. Another setback was the closure of several sugar factories in Bihar. With the closure of every factory came the loss of about 3,000-4,000 jobs, not to mention the tens of thousands of farmers who have suffered from the aftershocks of each factory and liquor processing centre that closed down. Moral policing has cost the state of Bihar jobs, and hit family finances as well as state finances. It is to be seen if the Chief Minister has learnt any lesson from the poor showing of his party in the just concluded Assembly elections, or whether he will continue with using the bludgeon of law and the police to enforce his own moral codes on a population that would like to be left alone to deal with such matters by themselves. Politicians and officials across the country and in the Central government need to understand the wisdom and the essentiality of Prime Minister Modi’s call for Minimum Government so as to ensure Maximum Governance.

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