Sekhar Gupta

So what exactly is 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 enough to want to be in a jail and that too in the Most Virtuous and Chaste Republic of Bihar. We haven’t yet read the fine print on Nitish’s new prohibition law, which should become a reasonable template in the unlikely event of Islamic State eventually establishing a Caliphate. But what you see in the bare law as passed by the state assembly this week is scary enough. Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act, 2016, now takes fight against liquor where nobody has gone before, Hindu, Muslim, Christian or secular.

The entire family is liable if one of its members is found hiding liquor at home. So if your teenage kid hid someplace and tippled without you even knowing, you would pay for it too. If police find a mix of sugar or jaggery with grapes in your home, they will be free to assume you are making liquor. If you are a house-owner you will really appreciate the unprecedented new power—in fact a legal responsibility—to “report” if a tenant drinks, you think: are you doubling my rent, or I place that Old Monk bottle in your home 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 any place for enforcing prohibition. If you think you will hide under judicial delays, forget it. You can get away with murder in Bihar, even run your mafia empires from jail and order the murder of inconvenient journalists from there. But a liquor charge will be tried by special courts. There is no scope left for doubt, therefore, and given the intention and resolve of the chief minister it is probably a most perfectly drafted law. Though a chronic nitpick like me would still ask a couple of questions. The collector has the power to “extern” a habitual drinker for six months. Now, if it is so easy to just lock him up the first time you find him playing with not just liquor but even overly sugared grape juice, where is the need to extern him? And where will you extern him? To the neighbouring village, district, or will Bihar send all its committed alcoholics to Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh or even 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 bazar. This law, I’m afraid, is bizarre. But it is not an exception.

Nitish, let me clarify beyond all reasonable doubt, is not drinking or smoking anything you may not want your children or parents to touch, or have too much of. He is, indeed thinking, in a certain way and not only he isn’t an exception, he only confirms a rising new phenomenon in Indian politics, of maximum populism. You over-promise, over-commit, offer to do the impossible and, once it is encashed in votes, we will see what we can do. In this specific case, I cannot see how this law can stand the test of constitution if someone subjects it to a real legal challenge. To try and do anything possible to conform to a directive principle is one thing, but to totally subvert and hijack the criminal law is another. That is, if the governor and then the president, pass the law. Once again, would they dare to block a law, however unreasonable, if it makes them look like supporting drinking in a Gandhian polity? The BJP at the Centre may indeed be tempted to not only let the law go through but even ask for more draconian measures to be added, because then Nitish could spend the remaining four years implementing it. The essence of Maximum Populisms is that politicians over-promise and, once their own purpose is served, leave a dog’s breakfast for the successors to unscramble. Nobody is so stupid as to question a bad but populist law or decision. UPA did it in its own way, legislating the poor of India out of all their problems, to 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 entire family is liable if one of its members is found hiding liquor at home. So if your teenage kid hid someplace and tippled without you even knowing, you would pay for it too. If police find a mix of sugar or jaggery with grapes in your home, they will be free to assume you are making liquor. If you are a house-owner you will really appreciate the unprecedented new power—in fact a legal responsibility—to “report” if a tenant drinks, you think: are you doubling my rent, or I place that Old Monk bottle in your home and call the police?


The Anna movement came in with a draft Jan Lokpal Bill that they all knew was impossible to pass under Ambedkar’s constitution. Under this draft, neighbours could spy on each other for a cut from Lokpal who would be investigator, prosecutor and judge and also get a cut for each conviction so it would be incentivized 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 again unimplementable Lokpal Act, which the entire establishment is now conspiring to undo, particularly as the NGOs also were 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 demands and pressures of extreme populism that you don’t dare to say no. Our newest political force, AAP, left the veterans behind in this business, starting with their Jan Lokpal, to the promise of free WiFi all over Delhi, a security guard and CCTV in each bus, a hundred new colleges, government schools better than private ones and so on. Whatever happens we shall see, or there will be somebody to blame.

The road to disaster is paved with good intentions is an old, and very outdated saying. In our politics now, it is more apt to say the road to disaster is paved with calculated cynicism, deliberate lies, over-promising on behalf of future generations so you can somehow win power for yourself. This is Maximum Populism, India style and it’s been seen to pay electorally. This is precisely what Nitish is thinking.


Nitish knows it will be tough for even 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. It will be a brave person to fight for the right to drink. Nitish knows it will still be some time before this bill becomes a law. He could meanwhile tell his constituency he has delivered and if he is blocked, or delayed, blame others and use it to set a national agenda for 2019. Never mind that Congress failed with the same idiotic promise in Kerala and DMK in Tamil Nadu. He doesn’t have much of a caste-vote base of his own, Lalu has more votes than him in Bihar and nationally, since everyone is socialist and too many claimants to the “secular” position, prohibition will give him a USP, particularly among women. What happens eventually, or how do we deliver on this promise, we shall see. Others have followed similar thinking and either ended up embarrassed, or doing harm or both.

BJP’s promise of bringing back trillions of dollars from Swiss banks has become a joke. What the various European whistleblower banking leaks have thrown up adds up to no more than a few hundred crores even if it was fully illegal, which most of it isn’t. The result, however, is a draconian black money law that pretty much brings back dreaded old FERA and a greedier, more powerful taxman. The road to disaster is paved with good intentions is an old, and very outdated saying. In our politics now, it is more apt to say the road to disaster is paved with calculated cynicism, deliberate lies, over-promising on behalf of future generations so you can somehow win power for yourself. This is Maximum Populism, India style and it’s been seen to pay electorally. This is precisely what Nitish is thinking.