The promise of prohibition has replaced the Tamil nationalism as the main issue in the Tamil Nadu elections this time, with political parties boasting of methods they will employ to implement a complete ban of liquor in the state, including stringent punishments.
Prohibition tops the list on Tamil Nadu’s political manifestos – it has figured prominently in the DMK manifesto released by party president M Karunanidhi. AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa has promised prohibition in a phased manner throughout the state if elected to power, a slightly different plan from the others who demand quick and complete prohibition.
While, Vaiko, senior leader of Vijayakanth-PWF alliance stole a march on the others by taking his aged mother and forcibly closed down liquor shops in his native town few months ago, S Ramadoss’ PMK is the most aggressive in terms of demanding and proposing ideas on prohibition in the hope that it will help him win the election. PMK’s Anbumani said he would ban liquor with a single order and set up a toll free number for the public to alert the authorities about those who sell, carry and consume liquor in Tamil Nadu.
It all began and took centre stage with the accidental death of a Gandhian, Sasi Perumal, a leading prohibition activist in Kanyakumari last July, while staging a demonstration atop a cellphone tower demanding the closure of a government-run liquor shop. The demonstration led by him near Marthandam in Kanyakumari district ended in his tragic death after he fainted atop the tower and vomited blood following the long protest during negotiations with officials.
The demand for prohibition in Tamil Nadu has been a longstanding one; it is a state with a peculiar history of prohibition – the Madras Presidency’s Chief Minister C Rajagopalachari introduced prohibition in Salem in 1937, which was later enforced across the state until a DMK government in 1971 lifted the ban only to enforce it again in 1974. For AIADMK, prohibition was a hot topic before they won the elections in 1977 but they lifted the ban in 1981 which allowed the sale of arrack and toddy too. This was a period that saw the emergence of Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) of the government which manufactured liquor.
The state witnessed another ban of liquor in 1987 but yet again the DMK reinstated the policy to sell arrack and toddy in 1990, a period that familiarised liquor sachets known as “pocket Saarayam” for cheap prices – an idea of a ‘cheap product’ used for many other social welfare schemes later on. In 1991, Chief Minister Jayalalithaa fulfilled her election promise to ban the sale of arrack and toddy.
Prohibition activists outside parties cite escalating road accident fatalities under the influence of liquor. The state, with at least 14 liquor factories and TASMAC outlets sells over 250 varieties of liquor brands and studies show that 11 per cent of the boys in the age group of 13 to 16 years drink alcohol in the state. They also cite data to show that the state has the dubious distinction of having the maximum number of widows aged below 30 years. Many powerful and influential figures in the state feel that prohibition is the one answer for all these problems. Also alcoholism remains as a major concern for women in villages and they think banning liquor is the only solution.
So prohibition has become the hottest topic of this elections and parties are competing with each other to narrate how they would make Tamil Nadu a ‘dry state’, Jayalalithaa attacked Karunanidhi recently saying he has no right to talk on the issue, recalling DMK’s decision to lift the ban in 1971.
The successful implementation of prohibition remains a question mark but for all political parties, total prohibition seems to be a common mantra for winning the election.