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Shekhar Gupta: Alcohol 0%, populism 100% v/v

Nitish Kumar confirms the rising phenomenon of maximum populism in Indian politics: a consensus paving the road to disaster

Shekhar Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Shekhar Gupta

What exactly is Nitish Kumar, well, thinking? To those who might have been click-baited thinking I might use the “D” word instead, I may be reckless often, but never suicidal enough to want to be in a jail and that too in the Most Virtuous and Chaste Republic of Bihar. Mr Kumar’s new prohibition law, should become a reasonable template in the unlikely event of the Islamic State eventually establishing a caliphate.

The Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, now takes the fight against liquor where nobody — Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Maoist or secular — has gone before. The entire family is liable if one member is found hiding liquor at home. So if your teenage kid hid someplace and tippled without you even knowing, you would be spanked too. If the police find a mix of sugar or jaggery with grapes in your home, they will be free to assume you are bootlegging or making, shall we call it, Monghyr Moonshine? If you are a house-owner you will really appreciate the unprecedented new power, in fact a legal responsibility, to “report” if a tenant drinks. Think: are you doubling my rent, or I place that Old Monk bottle in your home while you are away and call the police? A district collector can impose collective fines on a village found to be a repeat offender which is an incredible 21st century innovation of a 19th century British colonial practice although unlikely to have been used any place for enforcing prohibition. If you think you will hide under judicial delays, forget it. You can get away with murder in Bihar, run your mafia empires from jail and order the murder of inconvenient journalists from there. But a liquor charge will be tried by special courts.

There is no scope left for doubt, and given the intention and resolve of the chief minister it is probably a most perfectly drafted law. Though a chronic nitpicker like me would still ask a couple of questions. The collector has the power to “extern” a habitual drinker for six months. Now, if you can just lock him up the first time you find him playing with not just liquor but even overly sugared grape juice, why extern him? And to where? To the neighbouring village, district, or will Bihar send all its alcoholics to Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and Mumbai? Finally, in case you are a really poor Bihari, you need not worry. You can still freely, and happily buy, sell and drink toddy as long as you are about 100-200 metres away from a bazaar. This law is bizarre.

But it is not the only one. Mr Kumar, let me clarify beyond all doubt, is not drinking or smoking anything you may not want your children or parents to touch, but your tenant to be caught with. He is, indeed thinking, in a certain way and confirms a rising new phenomenon in Indian politics, of maximum populism. You over-promise, over-commit, offer to do the impossible and, once it is encashed in votes, we will see what we can do. I cannot see how this law can stand the test of the Constitution. To try and do anything possible to conform to a directive principle is one thing, but to totally hijack and subvert the criminal law is another. That is, if the governor and then the President, pass the law. Once again, would they dare to block a law, however unreasonable, if it makes them look like supporting drinking? The BJP at the Centre may indeed be tempted to not only let the law pass but even ask for more draconian measures to be added, because then Mr Kumar could spend the remaining four years implementing it.

The essence of maximum populisms is that politicians over-promise and, once their own purpose is served, leave a dog’s breakfast for the successors to unscramble. Nobody is so politically stupid as to question a bad but populist law or decision. The UPA did it in its own way, legislating the poor of India out of all their problems, from poverty to illiteracy to hunger. They only forgot — or probably didn’t have the time — to pass laws against bad weather, floods, droughts and India being beaten in cricket or hockey. We then called it UPA’s “Lawlipop Politics” (National Interest, March 16, 2013). The Anna Hazare-led movement came in with a draft Jan Lokpal Bill that they all knew was impossible to pass under B R Ambedkar’s Constitution. Under this, neighbours could spy on each other for a cut from the Lokpal who would be investigator, prosecutor and judge, and also get a cut for each conviction so it would be incentivised in cash for not ruling anybody innocent. This was never going to pass. But if you said so, you were asked in turn if you were sympathetic to the corrupt? It resulted in a much watered down, but still un-implementable, Lokpal Act, which the entire establishment is now conspiring to undo, particularly as the NGOs were also caught in its spate. I can promise that in the course of time even the prime minister will be taken out of its purview, as should have been the case in the first place. But such are the pressures of extreme populism that you don’t dare to say no.

Our newest political force, AAP, left the veterans behind in this business, starting with their Jan Lokpal, to the promise of free Wi-Fi all over Delhi, a security guard and CCTV in each bus, a hundred new colleges, government schools better than private ones and so on and a dozen-plus unpassable laws. Whatever happens we shall see, or there will be somebody to blame.

Mr Kumar knows it will be tough for civil society also to challenge the liquor law. Challenging Maharashtra’s equally untenable ban on dance bars at least had the fig-leaf of freedom of expression and livelihood. Who will fight for the right to drink legally? Mr Kumar knows it will still be some time before this bill becomes a law. He could, meanwhile, tell his constituency he has delivered and if he is blocked, blame others and use it to set a national agenda for 2019. Never mind that the Congress failed with the same idiotic promise in Kerala and the DMK in Tamil Nadu. He doesn’t have much of a caste-vote base of his own, Lalu Prasad has more votes than him in Bihar and nationally, since everyone is socialist and too many claimants to the “secular” position, prohibition will give him a USP, particularly among women. This is his only card. Others have followed similar thinking and either ended up embarrassed, or doing harm or both. The BJP’s promise of bringing back trillions of dollars from Swiss banks has become a joke. What the various European whistle-blower banking leaks have thrown up adds up to no more than a few hundred crores in India and almost all of it is legal and disclosed. The result, however, is a draconian black money law that pretty much brings back dreaded old Fera and a more powerful taxman.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a very outdated saying. In our politics now, it is more apt to say the road to disaster is paved with calculated cynicism, deliberate lies, mass suspension of disbelief, stealing of future generations so you can somehow win power for yourself. This is maximum populism, India style and it’s been seen to pay electorally. This is precisely what Mr Kumar is thinking.

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First Published: Fri, August 05 2016. 21:49 IST