Nitish Kumar has had a complicated relationship with Narendra Modi, but who would have expected him to embrace the Gujarat model with extreme retro-ness, by enforcing complete, comprehensive prohibition? Kumar will even install digital locks on liquor trucks passing through the state, which will refuse to open while on Bihari soil.
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Kumar has ostensibly drawn strength from the “overwhelming” rural response to the country liquor ban declared on All Fools’ Day. Interestingly, in 1991, Manipur had chosen that very day to ban drink. Perhaps that’s just coincidence, but rural support for prohibition does seem to cut across state lines. Liquor is perceived to be a social problem in villages across India, and women’s groups and social movements often back prohibition. States from Tamil Nadu to Haryana have banned drink to battle very real social problems, and concluded that it can only be a transient intervention. It is useful to jolt drunks to their senses by closing the bar for a bit. But keeping the tap stubbornly closed does nothing for either the public exchequer or the public temper. Or for public probity, since prohibition creates flourishing underground markets.
Nitish Kumar was bound to order a round of prohibition. It has been brewing ever since he made a rash electoral promise, and the opposition has been putting him to the proof. But he would be wise to stop hitting the bottle, in a manner of speaking, after the heat is off. Already, he has hinted at leniency by singing the virtues of neera or palm sap, which is a dual-use substance, a universal tonic which automagically transmutes into toddy at 11 am sharp. Bihar’s people know their mind. Kumar should not force a culture of denial and duplicity upon them, which might invite them to fiddle with time, and perhaps even with reality itself.