ABOUT 18 MEN AND counting is the death toll from drinking toxic hooch in Chhapra, Bihar, and that would usually still be of little interest to the rest of the country because no one is shocked or surprised by such tragedies. Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, however, amplified it when, on camera, he appeared to lose his temper in the Assembly and, face contorted with outrage, called the opposition ‘drunks’, as if the label was enough to explain everything, including the denial of his own government’s moral complicity that stems from the unbending decision to keep prohibition alive in the state.
The first reason for the complicity is that it is the police’s responsibility to prevent crimes and, if it is criminal to make and sell alcohol, then they failed, and the police answer to the government which answers to the people. The second reason for the complicity is that the police were never going to be able to enforce prohibition and so the policy itself was doomed to fail the minute it was signed on paper. Prohibition can be successful given the right conditions, like small totalitarian nations that have enough money to throw into policemen and surveillance. Saudi Arabia is an example. But for the rest of the governments that have tried to do it, prohibition ends up as a resounding disaster. And what hope then would Bihar, with its historic poverty, corruption, and abysmal law and order, have of making it a success? Almost none. And yet, why go ahead with it? Because prohibition has one saving grace for politicians—it gets them votes, especially of women who are fed up with the alcoholism of their husbands. It takes them some time to realise that the husbands still find their supply because a vast underground has now sprung up. And occasionally, their husbands end up dead or blind because the government is in denial.
But once you have staked your reputation on prohibition, it is hard to make a U-turn. Kerala has been forever trying to negotiate it. Gujarat has prohibition but tourists can easily get alcohol legally in some weird interpretation of the idea and the residents, too, easily find their supply except that they are now forced to commit a crime. And so, if you want an explanation for Nitish Kumar’s anger, it is that he is caught in a trap of his own making. The electoral dividend of prohibition is diminishing. On the ground, hooch flows with ease making policemen and gangsters wealthier. And in a state whose economy desperately needs adrenaline, the one thing that would give it—taxation on alcohol—has been taken out of the equation. Prohibition is the proverbial reinvention of the wheel that does not roll. Every instance of its failure in the past is not enough for the next government that wants to signal its virtue for votes. No one, especially astute politicians who are aware of the limitations of a state’s power, can think that there is any chance of prohibition turning alcoholics into model men. It doesn’t happen. Alcohol is merely a symptom. Turning off the tap only makes the disease worse.