The enormity of the liquor tragedy in Bihar deepens with the stark disconnect between the death of 16 people and the recently proclaimed prohibition policy. The fact that it has happened in Gopalganj district, home to Lalu Prasad, is hardly relevant to the context. One must give it to Nitish Kumar that he has called the bluff inherent in his administration&’s contrived exercise in self-deception. The chief regret must be that he ought to have reacted in the immediate aftermath rather than suffer the speculative cant of the administration in Patna. The claim of senior officials that the deaths were the outcome of “food poisoning” — even before the forensic report had come through — deserved to be laughed out of court. The speculation was puerile in the absence of a forensic report, as the Chief Minister underlined on Thursday. It is pretty obvious that the bureaucratic brass was anxious to obfuscate matters, and buttress the impression that there was nothing wrong with the prohibition policy per se, announced in April this year.

The tragedy has confirmed the worst misgivings expressed at that point in time, specifically that hubs manufacturing and selling the poison brew would proliferate throughout the predominantly backward state. As it turns out, hooch has driven people quicker to death than to the realisation that the drink must be abjured. The Chief Minister&’s promise of “tough action against the culprits” makes it plain that he doesn’t quite buy the argument of his officials. He has publicly debunked the attempted “hush-up” by his officials who tied themselves up in knots by “citing different reasons for the deaths”. The tragedy becomes still more puzzling with his rejection of the post mortem report, which has rather conveniently been quoted by the administration to engage in an exercise in dumbing down — “The report cannot be considered to be the final document,” was the CM&’s blunt assertion. The government must of necessity focus on the cruel irony of illicit liquor deaths in a state that boasts “total prohibition”. The credibility or even effectiveness of that policy is now open to question.

Is it possible that the bereaved families are under pressure of the district administration to be economical with the truth? This is another fundamental question that needs to be asked and answered. For Nitish has been forthright enough to urge the  families to “reveal the truth”. They have even been assured that no action would be taken against them by those intent on hushing up matters. The Chief Minister&’s liquor policy has suffered a severe setback at a critical juncture — when he is urging the BJP-ruled states to emulate Bihar… which doesn’t always show the way.