Dispiriting news is coming in from all quarters. In Bihar, Social Welfare Minister Kumari Manju Verma has gained infamy for opining that her chief minister’s prohibition project may fail because “elites” drink to get a “good sleep”. What’s the problem? The technical term “nightcap” eluded her, but the relation between ethanol and sleep is well-known. She added that the rich drink wine when they are exhausted, and indeed, some do. Meanwhile, Madhya Pradesh has liberalised its excise laws to widen the tax net — on condition. People who earn over Rs 10 lakh per year will be allowed to keep up to 100 bottles of liquor at home, provided none costs less than Rs 1,000. A licence fee of Rs 10,000 will be charged for this obsessively decimal regime, which comes into force on All Fools’ Day.
Parts of India periodically develop real alcohol problems, prompting popular movements for prohibition, but anxieties — and hypocrisies — concerning alcohol are orders of magnitude out of proportion. Though the drinking habits of Pataliputra were detailed by Megasthenes in Mauryan times, a politician in modern Patna who speaks of the difficulty of banning alcohol is perceived to be problematic.
But the most visible sign of alcohol anxiety is the peculiar strategy of putting curbs on drinking, not to reduce its incidence — that would mar the excise takings — but to dispirit drinkers. Dry days are ritualised inconveniences, especially corny when they are imposed on festivals which were strongly associated with merrymaking before they were sanitised by colonial disapproval. And in MP, until April 1, when the rich and famous will be free to buy their freedom, they can keep only two bottles of liquor at home. It’s a quota that would have alarmed even the Soviets at the height of Stalinist rationing.