Monday, November 28, 2016

Making sense of Nitish’s obsession with prohibition

by Ratnakar Tripathy

Cashew apples being squashed in Chorao, Goa
It is indeed a sign of the times that these days a leader of Nitish Kumar’s maturity and political skill is spending most of his valuable time lecturing the people of Bihar on the ill effects of alcohol and sending thousands of citizens to the jail for having a drink. He recently declared that ‘those who cannot live without liquor may leave the state’, a horrendous statement from a leader who professes commitment to democratic values. There is not much difference between those who talk of ban on certain food items or clothing threatening to ‘send someone to Pakistan’ since the whole issue here is the freedom of the palate and the body in general. Even within the framework of democracy what we now increasingly have is the eroded vestiges with stalwarts of democracy like Nitish defecting to the authoritarian side. All this seems ominous when the leader spends a great deal of his valuable political and administrative time over the regimentation of alcohol as the prime target of the state rather than the growth and development and security related issues plaguing Bihar. Indeed, Nitish sounds a bit touched in the head these days when with utter lack of self-consciousness, he advocates prohibition for the entire country as a matter of utter priority. As if booze was the main enemy of the Indian democracy and civilization. Nitish may even decide one day to eliminate the embarrassing word ‘Somras’, definitely an intoxicant from the Vedas themselves or even try to prove that Soma was in fact just a sort of milkshake or even just the syrup soaking the Vedic Rasgullas!  There are so many theories on what Soma really was anyway!

With our best leaders getting increasingly incoherent and muddled in their talk, Indian democracy faces days of extreme peril at least in the short run.  The daily dosage from Nitish on prohibition however provides a valuable chance to discuss two profound issues – first the fate of a leader like Nitish who despite his years in power and despite the great acceptance among the Bihari voter has not been able to build a cadre for the party, a party loyal to its chosen principles, a set of leaders at work with a robust sense of team spirit, or even a mass base like Laloo Yadav’s that would guarantee him a significantly minimum number of assembly and parliamentary seats at the worst of times. The reason may be Nitish’s bureaucratic attitude towards development that makes him look more like a deft manager than a man of the people constantly in conversation with the colleagues and the common folk. This alone makes him basically a politician unable to handle with full responsibility the mandate given to him by the Bihar voter. Nitish is currently under siege from Laloo who in turn is quite helpless in the face of pressures from the criminally inclined politicians of Bihar. Given Nitish’s heavy dependence on Laloo’s support to continue in power, the only card in Nitish’s hand is a threat, subtle or overt to join hands with the BJP in Bihar. This is a weapon with limited use. The fate of Bihar currently dangles by this slender thread.  

The second profound issue raised by the prohibition talk is a long term one and concerns the liquor policy followed by the central and the state governments right since the colonial times. The fact is that over the decades and centuries, the governments in India have managed to wipe out nearly all the local brewing traditions – the only significant remnant may indeed be the Cashew Pheni of Goa. Mahua, arrack, various palms, rice, and other natural products that had created a whole variety of liquors have been abolished in the favour of what are now known as ‘country liquor’ as well as the less poisonous Indian Made Foreign Liquor [IMFL]’, which is just as barbaric and low in taste. The sole reason why this was done is to of course eradicate the local traditions, wipe out the livelihoods of communities that produced drinks that would be the dream of the connoisseurs and collect the hefty taxes from the consumer. If you want a good analogy, here is one - it is a bit like a ban on the local weaving and textile traditions just to extract taxes from a regime of synthetic salwar/kurta – shirt trousers uniform for the whole nation. To create a monopoly of a jeans market, all you have to do is ban the Sari. The ban has had a radical impact on the drinking culture in India as a whole – people now often drink in order to seek a shortcut to oblivion or even worse to get oneself ready for the use of violence, rather than for enjoyment and conviviality. Anyone who has witnessed a tribal festival with dance and drinks can easily see the value in enjoyment when it is shared and created in states of togetherness.  

Fermented cashew fruit juice being transferred into pots for distillation
But who is to reason with a man completely bewildered by his predicament and no more capable of leading except through tirades against imaginary enemies of the society? Nitish is not alone in this – our national leaders these days are busy inventing enemies within or outside the borders and if you do not want to be declared a traitor by them you must join them in their crusade against the windmills. If only Nitish would make a U-turn and go back to his earlier concerns – security, development and justice! As for alcohol, let him put in place a committee of competent researchers who document the traditional liquors of Bihar produced and valued by the Biharis. And then perhaps he should roll a few sips over his tongue long enough to determine their real quality as against the toxic brews circulating among our rich and the poor. Those who value their scotch and champagne or the great wines developed originally by the priests in Christian monasteries must now follow the ‘patriotic path’ in according due respect to the glorious liquors from our own soil and remedy the long-drawn neglect.

Any takers here?

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