The death toll in the spurious hooch tragedy in Chapra of Saran district of Bihar climbed to 39 on Thursday, as officials said, several families were afraid of reporting deaths, due to stringent prohibition law in force. Most of the victims are from Mashrak and Isuapur localities.
In a rare outburst inside the Bihar Assembly on Wednesday, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar exploded in anger and told opposition BJP leaders, “What has happened to you all? You are lying. What you are demanding and doing is dirty politics. Remember what you used to say in the past (in support of prohibition)”.
Nitish Kumar, normally a cool politician, was trembling in anger as he shouted at BJP leaders sitting in opposition benches. He said: ‘Tum sab sharaabi hogaye ho…Tumhi sab Bihar me gadbadi kar rahe ho ….Tum sab barbad ho jaogey” (All of you have become drunk. You people are doing mischief. You will be destroyed).
It was the first time, people in Bihar watched Nitish Kumar using such harsh language bordering on insult. The opposition had given notice for discussion on the hooch tragedy, which was disallowed. As the opposition members pressed their demand, Nitish Kumar lost his cool and outrightly insulted the opposition members.
Nitish Kumar is known to be a polite politician having great acumen and vast experience, and he knows, such words are not used normally inside the House. The provocation began, when the newly elected BJP member from Kudhni, Kedar Gupta took oath, and BJP members shouted slogans, “Kudhni toh jhaanki hai, Poor Bihar baaqi hai” (our victory in Kudhni is just a curtain raiser, we will win the whole of Bihar).
Nitish Kumar kept his cool, but when the BJP members came into the well demanding suspension of question hour to discuss the hooch tragedy, he exploded in anger. The BJP members were alleging that state police was giving protection to liquor mafia and encouraging sale of spurious liquor.
While the Speaker was appealing to members to go back to their seats, Nitish Kumar rose and shouted at the top of his voice. He said, it was the BJP which had supported him when prohibition was enforced in Bihar, but know “they are encouraging illegal sale of liquor… We will not tolerate this”. He asked the Speaker to remove all the opposition members from the House. The entire House was shocked to watch a normally cool Nitish Kumar trembling in anger.
The Leader of Opposition Vijay Sinha demanded that the Chief Minister must apologize for insulting opposition members. Vijay Sinha went on to allege that criminals, gangsters and mafia ‘jungle raaj’ are on the rise.
Nitish Kumar again became angry and told Vijay Sinha, “Tum barbaad ho jaogey..Sabko pata hai kaise jitey ho. Koun gaya tha, tab jitey they” (You will be destroyed. People know how you won, and who went there to ensure your victory). The chief minister wanted to remind Sinha that it was he who had campaigned for him during the elections.
BJP members later staged a sit-in outside the House and alleged that liquor mafia is active in Bihar under patronage of some powerful people. Sushil Modi, senior BJP Rajya Sabha member, who has worked with Nitish Kumar as deputy chief minister for 15 years, said, “Nitish Kumar was never like this before. I fail to understand what has happened to him. May be it could be because of age, or the present situation. I am surprised.”
Nitish Kumar has lost his patience in the recent past too. On the contrary, Tejashwi Yadav, son of Lalu Prasad Yadav, remained calm inside the Assembly. He later defended Nitish Kumar in an indirect manner, by saying, “even BJP leaders had supported the prohibition when they were in power. At that time too, hooch deaths used to take place, but BJP never protested. Liquor was seized from the house of a BJP minister too.”
Tejashwi Yadav has every right to question BJP’s stance. It is true that BJP was in power when Nitish Kumar enforced prohibition. But it is also true that when people started dying after taking illicit hooch, it was Tejashwi and his party leaders who had raised questions before Nitish Kumar. In November, 2020, Tejashwi Yadav was leader of opposition and BJP was in power. At that time, it was Nitish Kumar, who had reprimanded Tejashwi, by saying, “You are the son of my friend, that’s why I am listening to you. Enough is enough.”
The death of a large number of people in hooch tragedy is surely a matter of concern. It exposes the weakness of the administration. In the last one year, nearly 100 people have died after consuming illicit hooch. In August last year, 17 people lost their eyesight in Saran district after consuming illicit liquor. On March 21 this year, 37 people died after consuming illicit hooch in Bhagalpur, Banka and Madhepura. ON November 5 last year, 24 people died in Muzaffarpur and Gopalganj after consuming illicit liquor. All these are cases that were reported. There are umpteen number of cases, where the families of victims did not report the deaths fearing action against them under prohibition law.
Since such incidents are taking place frequently, there is nothing wrong in questioning Nitish Kumar’s prohibition law. When RJD was in opposition, it was Tejashwi Yadav who had opposed prohibition by saying that “home delivery of liquor is taking place in Bihar, and prohibition has become a tool of income for corrupt policemen”.
Nitish Kumar is however firm on the issue of prohibition. On Thursday, he said, “Enforcing prohibition was not my personal wish, but it was a response to the demand and cries of women in Bihar….Last time, when people died of spurious liquor, some people said, the victims should be compensated. If someone consumes spurious liquor, he will die. The example is before all of us. Such deaths should be condoled, and awareness about spurious liquor must be spread. People must be made to understand.”
On Thursday, Nitish Kumar said, he has instructed officials not to nab poor people involved in sale of illicit liquor. “People manufacturing illicit hooch, and carrying on alcohol trade must be caught.”
But Nitish Kumar’s own allies have a different view. RJD leader and former minister Sudhakar Singh demanded that the prohibition law be withdrawn, and stress must be laid on spreading awareness among people. He alleged that corrupt policemen were encouraging trade in illicit liquor, and the courts are under pressure due to mounting cases of violation of prohibition law.”
Nitish Kumar’s political rival, Union rural development minister Giriraj Singh said, “it seems Nitish Kumar is facing some sort of tension, or frustration or disappointment. May be, due to pressure from Tejashwi to quit power.”
For the last few days, Nitish Kumar had been repeatedly saying that it is now time for Teajshwi Yadav to take over power in Bihar. There is speculation that Nitish Kumar may seek merger of his party Janata Dal(United) in RJD. Naturally, several JD(U) leaders are worried. Prominent among them is Upendra Kushwaha, a leader from Kurmi community to which Nitish Kumar belongs. On Wednesday, Upendra Kushwaha said, “nobody has said anything officially (about merger), nor has there been any discussion on our party forum, but if anybody seeks to merge JD(U) into RJD, it will be a suicidal step.”
Upendra Kushwaha is an old associate of Nitish Kumar. He formed his Rashtriya Lok Samata Party, joined NDA, became Union Minister in Modi government, but left NDA when he was not made minister by Modi during his second term. He merged his Rashtriya Lok Samata Party in JD(U), and Nitish made him the chairman of JD(U) parliamentary board. Kushwaha wants to become the political successor of Nitish Kumar. But now that Nitish Kumar has publicly started promoting Tejashwi Yadav, and has floated the idea of merger with RJD, Kushwaha is worried about his political future.
BJP leader Sushil Modi said, the merger of RJD and JD(U) is bound to happen because it was Lalu Yadav who had told Nitish to hand over power in Bihar to Tejashwi and enter national politics. Sushil Modi said, “JD(U) leaders will now have to chart their own future. In the coming days, there could be a revolt in JD(U). Most of the leaders are opposed to merger with RJD. They do not want to fight the next elections under Tejashwi’s leadership. The coming months could witness a political earthquake in Bihar politics. ”
Another BJP leader Tarkishore Prasad, who was earlier deputy CM, said, “Nitish Kumar has protecting his throne till 2025. It is up to other JD(U) leaders to decide where their political future will be safe. Nobody knows whether RJD and JD(U) are playing double cross game against each other. But my advice to JD(U) leaders is: Start thinking about your political future for 2025.”
RJD leader Shivanand Tiwari said, “Nitish Kumar has been CM of Bihar since 2005. If he wants to hand over reins of power to Tejashwi, what is wrong in it? Tejashwi has already proved himself, and he is the natural claimant to the seat of chief minister.”
Now that people, for the first time, have seen Nitish Kumar trembling in anger, let me outline two plausible reasons why he lost his cool.
First, Nitish Kumar as chief minister notified the Bihar Prohibition and Excise Act in 2016, six years ago, but failed to implement the law on the ground. Liquor is freely available in Bihar even today, for a price. Low-income group people buy spurious and poisonous liquor, since they cannot afford to buy liquor at exorbitant rates. Earlier, RJD opposed prohibition, and now BJP is opposing it. Earlier, Nitish was dependent on BJP, and now he is dependent on RJD. Thus, Nitish is caught in a bind, from both ends.
Secondly, his frustration is there because he knows that he may lose his chair soon. He would have to anoint Tejashwi as the chief minister. Nitish Kumar is helpless. Neither can he afford to make Tejashwi angry, nor can he save his chair. Nitish Kumar tried his hand in national politics, but it vanished in thin air. The list of claimants for the post of Prime Minister among opposition parties, is too long, and Nitish Kumar figures somewhere at the bottom. There seems to be no way out for him. Nitish has been chief minister of Bihar consistently for the last 17 years.
A wily and astute politician, Nitish made surprising political somersaults to save his chair. But there is no scope for another one. He is now in a blind alley, and there is no way out – no scope for making another somersault. In such circumstances, it is natural for a politician to lose his cool.
I know Nitish Kumar for the last several decades. He has always been polite, and most often, he used to speak with a disarming smile. I never saw him angry. It may be that he is now worried due to political compulsions. The BJP that he ditched, has been winning elections consequently. Narendra Modi, whom Nitish Kumar ditched, is way ahead in the race for 2024. Modi’s historic, landslide win in Gujarat, may surely have cause uneasiness in Nitish Kumar’s mind.
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