‘Revolution from above’: How Nitish crafted Bihar 2.0 out of a 'maikhana'

Those fond of shayari (couplets) are well acquainted with the perpetual conflict between the 'wine house (maikhana) and religious preachers (naseh or waiz)' in Urdu literature. The romance of drinking and challenging a religious decree of prohibition through the medium of poetry appears to be quite seductive.

But life is not shayari, particularly so when it pertains to a population reeling under ignorance and acute poverty – in rural parts of Bihar. There is enough official data to support the fact that liquor consumption in Bihar spiraled during the past decade – giving the impression that the government is acting as a 'shaqui' (girl serving liquor) to the 'maikash' (drinkers).

Nothing can be further from the truth. Evidently, when Nitish Kumar took over as chief minister in 2005, the state’s excise revenue was at least a sixth of that of Uttar Pradesh. He raised a valid question, “are people of Bihar more abstinent than people of Uttar Pradesh?”

Given Bihar’s population density – being highest in the country – the state has a substantially large population, nearly two thirds of Uttar Pradesh. As compared to Bihar’s paltry earning of Rs 300 crore, Uttar Pradesh has been earning around Rs 1800 crore.

A file photo of Nitish Kumar. PTI

A file photo of Nitish Kumar. PTI

The obvious reason for shortfall was the evasion of the excise levied – by an organised gang of bureaucrats and liquor manufacturers. Kumar inherited a defunct state whose critical arms and institutions practiced dereliction more than duties.

Of course, the state’s coffers were empty and revenue resources needed to be jacked up. A determined effort was made to bring the volume of liquor sold in Bihar under the excise tax net. It was in this context that the government granted licenses to open shops in many rural areas.

But the political culture that promoted liquor consumption in Bihar can be traced to the emergence of Lalu Yadav’s politics. In 1991, while touring rural areas of Bihar, Yadav encouraged people to enjoy their local drink 'tady' (toddy) in full view, much to the chagrin of his socialist friends like Shivanand Tiwari.

He exempted toddy from the excise duty in a bid to make drinking an instrument of political empowerment. In a caste-based society, where upper caste dominance is seen as oppressive, his idioms and vocabulary sounded like they were emanating from a grammar of counter-culture.

No doubt, he found traction not only amongst the socially underprivileged in Bihar but also among sections of the intelligentsia. Often, his lumpenised style of politics is acclaimed as the genius of a politician rooted to the ground.

Nitish Kumar can of course be faulted for promoting that legacy in order to shore up revenue for the resurrection of the state.  Yet, he was astute enough to realise his mistake of earning revenue through liquor sale. Having received a humiliating drubbing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Nitish Kumar can be credited with the success of making inconsistency not only a political virtue but an effective instrument to turn around people’s opinion.

Having fought with Lalu Prasad Yadav and his brand of politics for two decades in a tactical alliance with the BJP, he was quick to realise the risk of being decimated if he continued with his old political practice. He forged a formidable coalition with Lalu’s RJD and roped in the Congress to defeat the BJP.

Lalu’s casteist rhetoric proved to be a complete foil to the sober and sagacious Nitish Kumar. The combo pack however worked wonders in electoral terms and trounced the BJP hands down.

An astute strategist, Nitish Kumar is quite aware of the ephemeral nature of the victory. He had conceded much space to the RJD and the Congress, but not without reason. Those who know Kumar can testify that he is a very intent observer of the societal impulses.

“I have always found very innovative ideas coming from common people and not from seminars of intellectuals,” he had once casually remarked while talking about his innovative idea of cycle distribution to girls in his first stint as chief minister. Just before the 2015 elections, he took up prohibition as cause celebre, going against the wishes of his alliance partners.

That the deviant drinking has ruined the social fabric across the state was easily understood by him when he learnt that the issue evoked great traction among rural women.  What is particularly significant is the fact that master strategists of the BJP – who came from Gujarat, a state where prohibition is in force – were stumped by Nitish Kumar’s gambit. By the time they realised the impact of this deft political move, it was too late for the BJP to take up the cause.

Unlike the past, Nitish Kumar enforced the prohibition in Bihar with due care. He mobilised the entire political class to take a pledge not to drink or encourage drinking. Legislators have taken pledges under the constitution to be abstinent. The law of prohibition was passed unanimously without any dissent. This was indeed a clever move to stave off the criticism of curbing individual liberty, which cannot be at the expense of the collective good.

Like it or not, Nitish Kumar has emerged as a cult figure who combines political guile with streaks of a social reformist. Among women and younger generations whose lives were ruined by the deviant drinking male members in rural areas, he is seen as a savior.

The night time road accident rates have declined drastically all over the state. There is a mortal fear among legislators of losing their membership if they are seen drinking in violation of their pledge. In Bihar’s context, what Nitish Kumar has done is nothing less than a 'revolution from the above', to borrow the title of eminent sociologist Dipankar Gupta’s book.

It would indeed be difficult to enforce the prohibition in letter and in spirit. There are reports of spurt in sales of liquor shops in adjoining states like Jharkhand, UP and West Bengal. Addicts are resorting to chemical drugs as alternatives.

The rich and privileged are certainly rattled, though they are often too cocooned to be affected by such measures. In Patna’s prestigious Bankipur’s club lawn, one can enjoy a leisure evening with renowned  Mirza Ghalib scholar and JD (U) MP Pawan K Varma speaking eloquently about “Jaam, Maikada, waaez and Shaqui” over glasses of litchi juice or Rooh-afza! All things considered, it does sound like a great idea!

Updated Date: May 09, 2016 11:46 AM

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