The Nitish Kumar government is likely to face a tough time over the passage of the new excise bill, to be tabled in the ongoing monsoon session of assembly, with the opposition calling its proposals “draconian” and allies of the ruling party divided over it.
Besieged by criticism from the opposition over the government’s bid to bring several amendments to tighten the prohibition law, three senior ministers of the Grand Alliance (GA) met National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders on Sunday and sought their support for the passage of the Bihar Excise and Prohibition Bill 2016 in the assembly.
Among other provisions, the proposed bill seeks to punish all adults in a family for liquor consumption by an individual family member, or if liquor were recovered from one’s house. The bill also puts toddy in the category of country liquor and makes tapping of toddy as serious an office as preparation of country liquor.
The amendments to the bill were tabled in the assembly on Friday and will be taken up for discussion on Monday.
A team of parliamentary affairs minister Shravan Kumar, excise minister Abdul Jalil Mastan and art and culture minister Shiv Chandra Ram called on senior BJP leader and former deputy chief minister Sushil Kumar Modi and ex-CM and Hindustani Awam Morcha (HAM) leader Jitan Ram Manjhi.
Manjhi has been one of the most vocal leaders against the new excise legislation, primarily on the premise that lakhs of families would be rendered jobless if the bill is enacted in the present format.
The BJP leaders, including Modi and Leader of the Opposition in the state assembly Prem Kumar, have already sought amendments to various “’draconian” provisions of the act. The provisions to which they sought amendments include jail term to all adult family members for the fault of an individual and giving “unbridled power” to police and excise officials to “harass the common man” in the name of prohibition.
After the meeting, Shravan Kumar said they urged the NDA leaders to support the government on the enactment of different legislations, including the excise and prohibition bill.
“We have conveyed chief minister Nitish Kumar’s message and urged them to show unanimity over the new bill to be tabled in the House during the ongoing monsoon session,” Kumar said, adding that their (NDA leaders) response would be known only on the floor of the house.
The government’s bid to reach out to the opposition assumes considerable significance as the BJP has decided to boycott the bill over its “draconian nature”. Modi said the BJP was never opposed to prohibition, but it did not like the stringent measures the proposed act envisages.
Modi said the ministers assured him of amending the clauses related to toddy and bhang.
“However, I apprised him about the party’s objections to certain ‘draconian’ provisions and urged the government to amend them suitably,” he said, citing confiscation of property in case of liquor consumption among his other objections.
Taking a swipe at the bill, BJP leader Nitin Navin said the premises of CM and other VVIPs should also be governed by the act the same way a family head or the entire village will face a penalty for letting any of its members consume or store liquor.
“The CM should also be held accountable if liquor finds its way into the state illegally,” he quipped.
The government’s move to enact the new excise law with harsher provisions has evoked sharp resentment within the GA with some Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) and Congress leaders venting their opposition to certain clauses of the bill.
Contrary to the unanimity over the amendment to the prevalent excise act during the last budget session, there are fissures within the ruling alliance on several provisions of the new bill.
Concerns within the GA were apparent at a joint meeting of legislators where RJD and Congress MLAs opposed some stringent provisions in the new law on Friday.
RJD’s Bhai Birendra, Ramanuj Prasad and Bhola Yadav, reportedly, voiced their concern over the clause pertaining to punish all adults in a family for liquor consumption by individuals.
They also opposed categorising toddy tapping under the same provisions that govern liquor. Even former chief minister Rabri Devi said she had reservations over ‘the punishment clause’.
Prompted by discontent across allies, Kumar discussed the contentious provisions of the bill at the cabinet meeting on Saturday. However, it was not known, if the cabinet agreed to modify the disputed provisions.