In politics, the road to disaster is paved with calculated cynicism, deliberate lies and stealing from future generations so you can somehow grab power.
As Nitish Kumar sheepishly begins to relax his ISIS-style prohibition in Bihar, it’s my turn to say ‘I told you so’ in this piece I wrote just when he launched it in 2016.
What exactly was 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 to want to be in a jail and that too in the Most Virtuous and Chaste Republic of Bihar. Nitish’s 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 your 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 in 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, but a liquor charge will be tried by special courts.
Given the resolve of the chief minister, it is probably a most perfectly drafted law. A nitpicker, however, 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 or 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.
It’s, however, not the only one. Nitish, let me clarify, is not drinking or smoking anything you may not want your children or parents to touch, but rather your tenant to be caught with. He is, indeed, thinking in a certain way and confirms a rising phenomenon in Indian politics, of maximum populism. You over-promise, over-commit, offer to do the impossible and, once it is encashed in votes, you say 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 hijack and subvert the criminal law is another. But which President or Governor would dare to block a law, however unreasonable, if it makes them look like supporting drinking? The BJP could be tempted to not only let the law pass but even ask for more draconian measures because Nitish could then spend the remaining four years implementing it.
Maximum populism means politicians over-promise and, once their own purpose is served, leave a dog’s breakfast for the successors to unscramble. Nobody is stupid enough to question a bad but populist decision. The UPA did it in its own way, legislating the poor of India out of 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, 16 March 2013).
The Anna Hazare-led movement came in with a draft Jan Lokpal Bill that we 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 everybody 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 argue.
Our newest political force, the AAP, left the veterans behind in this business, starting with their Jan Lokpal, 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 a dozen-plus unpassable laws. Whatever happens, we shall see, or there will be somebody to blame.
Nitish knows it will be tough for even the civil society 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? He doesn’t have much of a caste-vote base of his own, Lalu Prasad has more votes than him, and since everyone is socialist and there are too many claimants to the “secular” position, prohibition will give him a USP, particularly among women. This is his only card.
Other leaders have followed similar thinking and either ended up being 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, and stealing from future generations so that you can somehow grab power. This is maximum populism, India style, and it’s been seen to pay electorally. This is precisely what Nitish is thinking.
A version of this article was published in August 2016
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