A Patna-based senior bureaucrat who sees the proposed prohibition move by Bihar’s Nitish Kumar-led government as a “fanatical misstep” claims that when Lalu Prasad of the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)—now a member of the state’s ruling coalition—was Chief Minister, he had raised excise duty on all brands of beer except one sold by a close relative; the aim was clearly to kill competition. “Laluji has always placed his family interests above everything else,” says this officer, guffawing as he refers to the RJD leader appointing two of his sons to key positions in the newly formed government—one as Deputy Chief Minister and the other as health minister—of the Grand Alliance which won a landslide victory last month in a bitterly fought election against the rival front led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP.
“Nitish will find it tough to implement his ‘in-phases prohibition’ aimed at protecting the interests of poor households where men end up as drunkards and wreck the lives of everyone in their family. The problem could be the nature of connections his major partner, RJD, has with the mafia and potential bootleggers,” says another official at the Excise Department who hastens to add that he is not handling “prohibition related” subjects. WhileOpen couldn’t independently verify the claims made by these officials, it is well known that in their long stint in power, Lalu Prasad and his wife Rabri Devi had come under the shadow of corruption. Lalu Prasad had remote- controlled his wife’s government from jail after he was imprisoned in 1997 for conniving with suppliers and officials to fudge the figures of government grants and under-supplying fodder, medicines and so on to the state animal husbandry department. The Bihar government had incurred huge losses in what came to be known as the ‘fodder scam’, for which Lalu was finally convicted and disqualified as a Lok Sabha member in 2013. The RJD heavyweight cannot contest elections till 2021.
The announcement made by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) that he will fulfill an election promise made especially to women, and phase out alcohol in the state from 1 April 2016 has brought to the fore, once again, the hazards of imposing a ban or restriction on the sale of liquor, especially cheap variants consumed by the working classes. The move could result in the rise of bootleggers and criminal gangs, a far bigger scourge. In a state where law and order has been in a sorry state, especially whenever Lalu’s party was in power, anti-prohibition advocates say it is next to impossible to enforce the policy. “Nitish has said that there will be zero tolerance for those who flout new policy rules banning the sale of country liquor of all kinds, from mahua to other drinks, but then for Lalu’s party men who have a long record in abetting and patronising criminals, the line of tolerance starts somewhere else, not at zero. Haven’t you heard the famous Amitabh Bachchan dialogue, ‘Hum jahaan khade ho jaate hain, line wahin se shuru hoti hai’? That is the truth about many politicians and their men in Bihar,” avers a former close associate of Nitish, who, like most government officials, does not want to be named. He points out that Nitish wouldn’t be the first leader to restrict liquor sales in the state. The late Chief Minister Karpoori Thakur, a mentor to both Lalu and Nitish, had tried implementing prohibition when he was in power from 1977 to 1979, but had to reverse his stand in the face of a spike in crime and spurt in illicit liquor sales.