Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s national ambition appears meshed in the politics over the ban on liquor and release of former MP and don of Siwan district Mohammad Shahabuddin. Like a bird entangled in a net, Kumar will thrash around to try fly again, but the two issues – prohibition and Shahabuddin – have brought to the fore the weaknesses inherent to his politics that will continue to be a drag on him.
Kumar, though, can hope for temporary relief. Should the Supreme Court cancel Shahabuddin’s bail, media stories about his disdain for law, the ruthless murders he allegedly plotted and ordered or committed, and the structure he created parallel to that of the state, will certainly peter out.
Nevertheless, the damage to Kumar’s image has been irreparable. This is because the debate over whether the Bihar government was complicit in Shahabuddin’s release has dented the moral authority of Kumar. He is seen, rightly or wrongly, to have succumbed to the pressure his ally, Lalu Prasad Yadav and his party – Rashtriya Janata Dal – mounted on him to script Shahabuddin’s flamboyant drive into freedom.
This narrative also explodes the myth that Kumar can restore the primacy of law amidst the pulls and pressures of the coalition government he heads. Worse, Shahabuddin’s description of Kumar as “chief minister of circumstances” has underscored the fragile nature of his support base.
Can a chief minister who cannot be his own man in his own state hope to play a prominent role outside it? Can Kumar make a success of his pet project of prohibition to use it as a trigger for his launch at the national level?
Indeed, prohibition and the phenomenon of dons – Shahabuddin is the most notorious among the many who stalk Bihar – are linked in ironical ways. The power and influence of dons are telling evidence of the moribund state structure and the abject failure of state policing. Yet it is on this administrative machinery that Kumar has to depend upon for the success of his prohibition policy.
Over the five months of prohibition, the Bihar government seized a little over a lakh of litres of liquor, both country-made and IMFL included. In the same period, 13,839 people have been arrested for flouting prohibition laws, of whom nearly 4000 were in August alone.
These figures suggest there are more people who are surreptitiously trying to quench their thirst for liquor than before. We all know that seizures of any kind represent a small fraction of the illegitimate trade in them. Stories about liquor flowing from neighbouring states abound. The state’s revenue collection has plunged from Rs 897 crore, between April and June 2015, to Rs 42.27 crore for the same period this year.
Ironically, prohibition will have provided the bahubalis a new mode of gathering illegitimate wealth. In his recent study of the communal violence that visited Agarpur, Vaishali district, in 2015 – published in the Economic and Political Weekly – Mohammad Sajjad, associate professor of history at Aligarh Muslim University, points to the phenomenon of young men who earn their livelihood through “dalali (brokering or fixing).”
These men, says Sajjad, are the link between the village community and the state. They act as facilitators in the interface between people and development officers, and the police also work through them. “These criminals (dalals) pass on information about well-off villagers from whom money can be extorted through various mechanisms. They have been patronized either by dons such as Munna Shukla, Anand Mohan Singh, Shahabuddin, Pappu Yadav, or by the close aides of these ‘worthies’.”
These dalals levy what the late journalist Arvind N Das called the rangdaari tax. Sajjad quotes Das thus, “Rangdaar means one who can exercise dominance. It is as simple as that: Since a person is in a position to extract cash, he will… It is the brutal share of the king of the jungle.” Given the presence of extra-legal entities in just about every village – and they, in turn, owing allegiance to powerful dons such as Shahabuddin – it would be naïve to assume that they wouldn’t defy the prohibition law to make extra bucks.
This, in turn, underscores yet another irony – while prohibition has provided a potential new avenue of earnings for dons and rangdaars, those fond of liquor will not only have to pay black market rates but also run the risk of doing time in jail. Even the innocent will be harassed, as Bihar’s prohibition law has provisions making family elders criminally liable for children tippling, and even companies can be held to account for an employee storing or drinking liquor on the premises where he or she works.
There can’t be a bigger example of travesty of justice than this. You have the police gunning for people who love a peg or two, but who dare not bring dons to justice. Shahabuddin’s release underscores this cruel irony. Prohibition has never succeeded anywhere in the world. Given the rot in its administrative structure, Bihar can’t possibly emerge as an exception.
Kumar’s overweening ambition to play a role at the national level has also soured his relationship with Lalu Prasad Yadav. Not only has Kumar arrogated to himself the credit for the 2015 Bihar Assembly victory, he has unilaterally fanned out to neighbouring Uttar Pradesh. Kumar’s chances of notching spectacular electoral successes there is remote. What he seeks for himself is the role of principal architect of an anti-BJP front, of which the Congress has to be necessarily the lead player. (Should the Congress fail in its revival bid, Kumar could also hope to become Prime Minister in 2019.)
A stronger Kumar or an enduring bond between him and the Congress militates against Prasad’s interest. Not only will it weaken him, but also undermine his goal of transferring his still-formidable support base to his children. For instance, Muslims and others inclined against the BJP are likely, as of now, to vote in 2019 for an alliance which has the Congress, as its national presence, even though shrinking rapidly, makes it most suitable to provide an alternative to the NDA government at the Centre.
This is why the bonhomie between Kumar and the Congress has stung Lalu, evident from his statement that Rahul Gandhi is unfit to become Prime Minister. It is his way of warning the Congress, as also reminding Kumar, that they can’t possibly ignore him. Indeed, Kumar couldn’t have had another stint as chief minister without forging an alliance with Prasad’s RJD, which won nine seats more than the JD(U) did in 2015.
In all this there is a message to Kumar – a person nursing a national ambition must first bolster his own strength. Kumar hasn’t on his home turf of Bihar. His national ambition is simply not in proportion to his strength. This, the Shahabuddin episode has underscored, as will Kumar’s prohibition plan in the future. The Chief Minister of Bihar can’t lose the plot in Bihar and still hope to win India.
The author is a journalist based in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, is available in bookstores.