For any CHIEF minister, to enforce “prohibition” in a state is a Herculean task, without the trappings of the Union government’s power. If prohibition was pan-national, it would have been an easier proposition. The grammar of its enforcement would have been different. Provincially, not only has one to deal with the ramshackle state structure, but porous borders with surrounding states without prohibition create problems in enforcing the agenda. Further, even if small, a contrarian “elite” opinion also plays an important role as a disincentive for prohibition.
Elite opinion is a critical input which acts as an ideological lubricant for legal sanction and enforcement. Thus, what Mahatma Gandhi or the Directive Principles of State Policy opined on prohibition is immaterial. But after seven decades in post-Independence India, one has to revisit many foundational issues of nation-building. One must calibrate the justification for prohibition in the poorest state of the Indian Union, in a global and historical context.
The first recorded history of prohibition was associated with ”Yu the Great”, the first ruler of the Xia dynasty (2070 BC-1600 BC). What the consequence of prohibition in China was is not known. In more recent world history, the impetus for prohibition was not totally religious. In North America and Nordic states, the impetus for prohibition was driven more under the rubric of “pietistic” and “temperance” movements. The former, a moralistic ethos, and the latter, gastronomical options, were essentially extensions of the Protestant ethic, which laid the foundations of capitalism as enshrined by Max Weber. The Protestant ethic essentially revolved around frugal spending and saving, which, it was said, lead to productive investment. That was the bedrock around which capitalism was built. That is why ”pietistic” and ”temperance” movements supported prohibition; its ethos found resonance in the initial period of capital accumulation and the Industrial Revolution.
Even though the American Civil War was fought on the agenda of “slave labour”, both its protagonist and antagonist were united on the question of prohibition. The American Civil War symbolised both the aspirations of modern capitalism and the diabolic form of buccaneering accumulation — both these trends of history had the identical belief that prohibition helps accumulation. In 1923, the Ku Klux Klan, otherwise a fiercely racist organisation, traded pistol shots with bootleggers and whipped liquor sellers who broke the rules of prohibition. This unfettered logic of capital accumulation led to the ratification of the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution, which introduced prohibition and entailed banning of manufacture, transportation and sale of intoxicating liquors. Prohibition continued till the Great Depression in 1929. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt repealed prohibition.
When Nitish Kumar introduced prohibition, it was not a result of altruism. In his first two terms, he built a huge women’s constituency. This constituency elicited a major promise from him — in his third term (if voted to power), he would introduce prohibition. This constituency was not only politically enabled through positive discrimination in the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI), but got a real taste of economic enabling through the ”Jeevika” livelihood programme spun around micro finance. This is a unique programme of “bottom up” capitalism, where not only is micro accumulation
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taking place but the trust level of its members has increased manifold. One stumbling block in the way of micro accumulation was the drinking habits of male members of the household. If the “bottom up” capitalism of Europe and North America were to be emulated in Bihar, without the advantage of “pietistic” and ”temperance” movements, prohibition was a necessary precondition.
Bihar is possibly among the few states in the country clocking 10 per cent growth in the last decade. Per capita income has also increased substantially. It has been witnessed in many places, especially the poorer parts of the world, that liquor consumption increases substantially with increases in income. It has been seen in many parts of the country, including Bihar, that the proceeds of land compensation are either spent on liquor-driven revelry or expensive marriage celebrations. Getting addicted to liquor is essentially to emulate elite consumption patterns.
Many litterateurs and poets have extolled the ”virtues” of liquor consumption. Harivansh Rai Bachchan’s Madhushala is part of the lore of the Hindi heartland’s intelligentsia — but for a state like Bihar, it is catastrophe. The “surplus” generated either through a “bottom up” or “top down” effort goes into unproductive consumption of liquor. It is true that by introducing prohibition, Bihar has been disadvantaged by about Rs 6,000 crore in the form of excise or VAT duties. This tax collection is based on sale of liquor to the tune of Rs14,000 crore. But if liquor-driven expenditure gets diverted to productive investments, like education, health or consumer goods, it will not only contribute to the gross domestic product of the state magnificently but also to family-enabling.
Capitalism or the industrial revolution were not only techno-managerial strategies, but a fundamental change in ethos and thinking, as revealed through the Protestant ethic.
One of the insurmountable problems related to prohibition is bootlegging. Over and above that, where is the guarantee that if prohibition is lifted, other narcotic products will not find their way in? One of the reasons why prohibition was lifted in the US was widespread bootlegging. Al Capone, the bootlegger gangster of Chicago, became so powerful that he started exercising political power too. Even with the lifting of prohibition there, the power of drug cartels, dealing in cannabis and cocaine, could not be marginalised. With the end of prohibition, North America provided a huge market for narcotic goods.
In the absence of a political agenda to take on the drug mafia in Latin America, these traders became so powerful, they could take on the might of the state with matching fire power. Way back in the 1970s, the ganja smuggler Kamdeo Singh from Begusarai exercised disproportionate political power when there was no prohibition. From drugs, he became a political mercenary — he could capture booths to ensure electoral victory. His power was so menacing, he had to be killed ultimately.
Even now, small-scale bootlegging cannot be ruled out. With an enabled state in place though, and Shahabuddin and Anant Singh behind bars, the “Al Capone syndrome’’ may not be replicated in Bihar. Prohibition is possibly the first step in Bihar to nip the problem in the bud. Even Vito Corleone, the “Don” in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, refused to invest in the operations of Virgil Sollozzo, a drug trafficker, which could have brought him huge financial dividends. Even though Vito Corleone was involved in gambling and corruption, any narcotics-related trade, he felt, would bring ruin to generations in the US. Vito Corleone was not inspired by any “pietistic” or “temperance” ethos — nor had he a theoretical foundation about ushering in capitalism. Even then, he refused Virgil Sollozzo, at the peril of being shot. What Vito Corleone could think and prognosticate, Bihar’s intelligentsia could also internalise.