There are many reasons why Nitish Kumar has been great for Bihar, especially if you evaluate his performance over the last 15 years, rather than just the present term since 2015. He brought Bihar out of “Jungle Raj” no doubt. On roads and electricity, he gets full marks.
By the next assembly election in November, we are likely to hear a lot about the state government’s Nal Jal Yojana, work on which is going on in full swing. He may have failed particularly on education and health, but one thing at a time. On economic activity that creates employment, he is not the only one without answers. All of India is.
Yet there’s a lot that has gone particularly wrong with his third term, giving rise to the impression that he’s really not that much into administration and governance as he once used to be. What are these issues? You don’t really need to count them one by one, as they all come together in one single issue: the failure of prohibition.
The failure of prohibition in Bihar is so monumental that it stares you in the face. On a recent visit to Patna I had a drunk man approach me on the road, speaking gibberish, barely able to walk. I met people who claimed to have seen drunk cops. If prohibition has failed so badly that drunk men are loitering around city centre in Patna, what does it say about Nitish Kumar’s grip over administration, governance, law and order?
Loss of control
People like leaders who are in control of the situation around them. Running a state is no easy task. People want “strong” leaders precisely because they want their leader’s writ to be respected and followed. The failure to implement prohibition makes Nitish Kumar look like a leader who has lost control over the state. The definition of “Jungle Raj” is of a rule without the law of the land. Might is right. Today prohibition is the new Jungle Raj — the law has collapsed.
This loss of control over the state’s affairs is amplified by high-profile failures such as the Patna floods last year, the Muzaffarpur girls’ shelter rape case, and the Srijan scam. But those were episodes he can try and make people forget. He can’t make people forget the failure of prohibition because it’s a daily reality. Every phone call made to a bootlegger is a man laughing at Nitish Kumar.
Talking of jokes, one could have joked that prohibition was Nitish Kumar’s idea to solve the state’s massive unemployment problem — the unemployment rate in Bihar is higher than most states. He has been unable to fulfil his election promise of giving educated youth an unemployment allowance. So he’s come up with prohibition, which has created a bootlegging informal economy. Teenager boys are dropping out of Bihar’s hopeless education system to earn a fat income through bootlegging. The commission to the police, the regular arrests, and bail, have all become part of a routine system. Today young men can make more money in a Bihar village than by working as labour in India’s slowing city economies.
This is socialism at its best: instead of a few businessmen making all the alcohol money, all of Bihar is now sharing the spoils. Except it is also socialism at its worst: these young lives are being destroyed. They are falling into a life of crime, losing the fear of law, becoming part of an organised mafia. The day prohibition is removed in Bihar — and one day it will be — these young men won’t know what to do. Even if it takes 20 years, they will just be in their thirties by then.
There’s another way in which prohibition has led to an increase in crime. The police force is focused on checking prohibition (and making corruption money out of it). Since prohibition is a prestige issue for Nitish Kumar, the police force is expected to treat it as a high priority. Preventing real crime — theft, rape, murder — takes a backseat. You can go anywhere in Bihar and ask people about crime, and they will say it has risen. Lalu’s Jungle Raj was full of crime. Nitish Kumar’s USP was that people could step out of their homes after sunset without the fear of crime. Now, thanks to prohibition, Kumar is beginning to lose his USP. Nobody calls him “sushasan babu” (good governance man) anymore.
A new black economy
The other USP Nitish Kumar had was anti-corruption. If the Srijan scam has come as a blot on his own clean image, prohibition has created a new black economy worth thousands of crores of rupees. The police can simply not crack down on prohibition because there’s just too much easy money for cops to make. So they come up with innovative ways to show they are cracking down on bootleggers and drinkers while actually facilitating it.
Crime, corruption, unemployment, poor governance — all come together in the failure of prohibition, exemplifying everything that’s wrong with Bihar today.
Absence of humility
The failure of prohibition highlights the worst part of Nitish Kumar as a leader: arrogance. He’s been in power far too long to have humility anymore. He does not have the humility to accept that prohibition has failed. Instead, he wants his worst policy till date to be replicated across India.
Prohibition was never a big promise in his 2015 campaign. He was speaking at a rally and some women shouted demanding prohibition, and like a king, he accepted the demand immediately, without thinking much about it. After he came to power, he thought this would be a great way to impress the woman voter. Funnily, it was Nitish Kumar who had enabled cheap alcohol pouches to reach all of rural Bihar to raise state revenues. Thus, the problem of alcoholism and resulting domestic violence was created by Nitish Kumar.
From that extreme, he swung to another. Now we have total prohibition. You can get arrested for taking a sip after a hard day’s work. The rich get away with a bribe, but the poor pay a heavy price. Everyone can get alcohol home delivered in Bihar, but only the poor fear their lives being destroyed by the legal system over a drink. And since prohibition has failed, women are still unhappy.
There are two simple ways to allow alcohol and control alcoholism. First, the number of licensed alcohol shops should be controlled. Make it legal but hard to access. Don’t allow pouches to be sold in every village market. Second, create a serious infrastructure of de-addiction centres, and awareness about them. Nitish Kumar still has the time to realise that such a middle-ground approach would work best.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.