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Message in a bottle

STATE OF PLAY | Nitish Kumar, prohibition and Bihar
Nitish Kumar.
Nitish Kumar.
File photo

Sankarshan Thakur   |   Published 03.12.21, 03:01 AM

As little and as ordinary a thing as an empty bottle is found on the hallowed premises of the Bihar assembly. But that bottle isn’t an ordinary thing, nor a matter that can, by any yardstick, be called little. It is a bottle of booze. Worse, it has been emptied. Some are calling it a rockstar bottle because it has rocked the assembly and shaken up the administration. What an audacious infraction! Someone has actually illicitly procured and illicitly consumed the illicit contents of that identified non-flying object, lying there, offending not merely the prestige of the premises and the law of the land but also the inviolable purity of the airspace around the one and only Nitish Kumar, the chief minister of Bihar and the improbable confluence of the principles of Ram Manohar Lohia, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and Madhavrao Sadashivrao Golwalkar. A bottle of alcohol — and an emptied one at that — on my premises? Preposterous!

I shall not stick any blame on anyone who might be reminded of Asrani’s unforgettable slapstick act as jailer in Sholay upon reading this: “Hamare jail mein pisstaulSipaahiyon!”

And so it is that the seniormost civil servant and the seniormost policeman of the state are ordered to the scene of such unconscionable crime to grasp, first-hand, the nature and the scope of the offence in full measure — shape of the bottle, size, brand, posture when detected, the possible direction and trajectory of the flight it took upon being de-fuelled. An inquiry will have to be conducted, after all, and a report duly submitted on how the bottle came to be emptied and land on the premises of the state assembly. Such inquiries are nothing to mock at; a previous such effort on the causes of the emptiness of alcohol bottles in Bihar, whose laws prohibit the very presence of loaded or downloaded bottles of alcohol, revealed that the culprits were what must have been a rapaciously alcoholic horde of rats. The rats had it, the rats had it, the rats had it said the Bihar Police report on how crates of seized alcohol in their possession were found to possess no alcohol. It passed for an explanation.

When the absurd becomes a daily and repetitive thing, it ceases to be absurd and becomes normality itself. It no longer sounds absurd, for instance, that the Bihar chief minister, Nitish Kumar, has achieved what he has been hard at for a while now — to turn into a pitiable apparition of what he once promised to be. Or that the state he helms has resumed its trademark activity — running the race to the bottom and acing it. Does it strike anyone in Bihar that the state has deposited itself back at the bottom of the entire well-being indices? Does it strike anybody as absurd that Nitish Kumar begins by feigning ignorance of newly-revealed, adverse facts about Bihar and then says he will have to read them before he offers comment? Who says it is absurd that a chief minister doesn’t have knowledge of what a Niti Aayog study has said? Is it not absurd to believe that a chief minister should keep himself informed and abreast of what the nation’s top planning body has to say about the health of his state? Here are just a few of the things that the first multidimensional poverty index of the Niti Aayog has put out in the public domain and which Nitish Kumar says he isn’t yet aware of:

  • that, at 51.91 per cent, Bihar has among the highest number of poor in the country;
  • that it has the highest number of malnourished citizens;
  • that it has some of the worst numbers when it comes to taking count of those deprived of schooling opportunities, of aid for maternal health problems, and of cooking fuel;
  • that on a whole range of sectors, from overall economy to infrastructure to public sanitization and cleanliness to health to education to law and order to entrepreneurship to overall governance, Bihar is either at floor level or only slightly above.

Perhaps another category is screaming to be included from Bihar in the Niti Aayog indices: the effort, attention, time and resources spent on inquiring into how bottles of alcohol are being emptied in a state whose chief minister takes pride in keeping the most draconian prohibition laws clamped upon the state but seldom wonders how so many thousands of litres of alcohol percolate into the state each day and who benefits from the process that culminates in the discovery of empty booze bottles. It’s a question seldom asked in Bihar because everybody knows the answer — the profiteers from prohibition are a well-classified set the world over, a nexus of politicians, bureaucrats, policemen and criminals who should all go under the collective name of mafia, and it is the elephant romping about Bihar that Nitish Kumar refuses to see.

At his first press conference upon assuming power in 2005, Nitish was asked what his top priority would be. His instant and unflinching answer was: to restore the rule of law. Many among the gathered journalists laughed too because they believed Bihar to be well beyond the stage. But over his next two terms in power, Nitish proved himself true to his word and achieved more than he had actually set out promising. It was his record from those years that earned him countrywide notice — there must be something about a man who can restore a shambles called Bihar back to shape and on the rails.

Then, between pitching his ambitions beyond reach and having to beat a panicked retreat, he seemed to have lost the plot. From a man of postured political daring — he sundered ties with the Bharatiya Janata Party with angered and outspoken objection to the way Narendra Modi was being projected as future prime minister — he turned into a pusillanimous Modi groupie. From setting out on a mission to achieve a ‘sangh-mukt Bharat’, he turned into a sangh bunny, beholden to it in mystifying fashion. His work marked him out as unique in the annals of Bihar, although only for a while — he was focused on inclusive development, he got a handle on law and order, he restored the notion of governance. It’s Bihar’s utter misfortune that all of that has evaporated. Perhaps that bottle on the assembly premises does need probing; who is it that emptied it of promise?

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