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Nitish Kumar’s prohibition card

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Though JD(U) may not get enough votes in U.P., the campaign could link him with prohibition politics.

In his electoral meetings and rallies during the 2015 campaign for the Bihar Assembly elections, Nitish Kumar promised that if his Grand Alliance came to power, there would be a >complete ban on the sale of liquor in Bihar. He got support not only from Dalit and backward caste women but also from the upper caste women in the rural areas. Indeed, upon winning another term, he delivered on the promise. In his previous two terms as Chief Minister, he had consolidated the women’s vote with free education and distribution of bicycles and uniforms. Curbing the sale of alcohol was a logical next step.

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections are the next big electoral battlefield, and Mr. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) is investing much political capital in a Grand Alliance kind of bid in the State. As a show of intent, he has already addressed a big meeting in the Pindra Vidhan Sabha constituency that falls in Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Lok Sabha constituency. He declared that his alliance would go to the people with two main campaign planks: anti-communalism and prohibition. He asked the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to put forth its opinion on the anti-liquor movement. It was decided in Pindra that the JD(U) would make every effort to ban liquor in every village of U.P. There is a very high possibility that this issue may gain traction in the U.P. Assembly elections.

A long history

Prohibition is not a new political agenda in India. In his fight against colonialism, Mahatma Gandhi had addressed it both social and politically. He had a four-pronged strategy. His first aim was to spread social reform consciousness and make India a liquor-free nation by creating awareness. The second was to gain support for the nationalist cause among the bottommost rungs of society through issues that impacted their daily life. Third, he tried to create a counter-culture against Western ways. Lastly, he challenged the British economic system and Western food culture by his appeal against liquor consumption.

The social reform movements which emerged during the British Raj, like the Adi Hindu movement of Swami Achhutanand, popular among the Arya Samaj and the Dalits, Shivnarayani sect, Ravidas sect, Kabir sect and other similar popular sects considered liquor as the biggest evil in society and tried to liberate people from its clutches through their preachings. In this way, during the colonial period many questions of social reform and nationalist politics were somewhat intermingled with each other. Keeping in mind this background, Mahatma Gandhi raised the ban of liquor as an important cultural and political question. After India attained independence, the government did not take any initiative in the anti-liquor campaign — instead, considering it to be good source of revenue for the state, it helped in its distribution.

Women whose menfolk spent their earnings on alcohol and inflicted domestic violence were the worst sufferers, and they raised the issue politically. Support for prohibition also came from the poorer, marginalised sections of society, as expenditure on alcohol drained the meagre budgets of families. In a related change, due to the rise in migration of people from the villages towards cities, more money flowed to the villages, and one of the ways this manifested itself was in the popularity of the so-called Indian-made foreign liquor, and not just country liquor, in rural areas.

BSP’s challenge

Interestingly, when Kanshi Ram started the Bahujan movement in U.P. in the 1980s, his first programme to mobilise the Dalits was on the issue of prohibition. The anti-liquor movement extended to places like Bareilly, Rampur, Azamgarh, Meerut, Moradabad, etc. where Dalit women participated actively. At present too women are a dominant support base of the Bahujan movement in the State, which can also been seen in the number of women present at meetings of Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) chief Mayawati.

Mr. Kumar has well understood this backdrop and wants to court Dalits, backward classes and the middle class of U.P. with the prohibition plank. This is such a burning and sensitive issue that no political party can oppose it outright. It may also happen that a section of the traditional base of political parties like the BSP, Samajwadi Party, BJP and Congress may be swayed by this issue. Though this issue may not help Mr. Kumar in getting a sufficient number of seats in the Assembly, it could give his JD(U) a larger profile than it currently has in U.P., and help associate him with prohibition politics nationally.

Recently U.P. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav said at a meeting that a ban on liquor in the State cannot be decided upon in a hurry as it would not be in the interest of farmers who grow sugarcane, as its by-products are sold to distilleries. But given the pace at which political parties around the country are mobilising support around curbing alcohol consumption, the last word may clearly not have been said yet.

Badri Narayan is professor, Centre for the Study of Discrimination and Exclusion, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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Printable version | Jan 30, 2020 12:33:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/Nitish-Kumar%E2%80%99s-prohibition-card/article14388345.ece

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