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The politics of alcohol: Heady cocktail, new flavour

There is limited evidence to suggest that prohibition works. Barring Gujarat, where prohibition was imposed after independence, no state has been successful in the battle against the bottle.

Written by Amrith Lal | New Delhi |
April 10, 2017 1:26:55 am
bihar, bihar liquor prohibition, liquor ban, bihar-alcohol prohibition, madhya pradesh, kerala, politics of alcohol, nitish kumar, oommen chandy, alcoholism, india news, indian express Outside a liquor outlet in Perumbavoor, 40 km from Kochi, Kerala. Curbs on alcohol sale failed to win a second term for the Congress coalition. (Express Photo by Nirmal Harindran)

AFTER BIHAR, will it be the turn of Madhya Pradesh now to impose prohibition? With protesters damaging liquor vends and blocking traffic in many districts, a harried MP Finance Minister Jayant Malaiya said the government may impose prohibition as soon as next year. The policy climate, too, seems to be empowering the voices that wish to impose a total ban on alcohol, with the Supreme Court ordering that all bars and liquor shops within 500m of highways be shut.

So what’s it with prohibition that forces a political realignment as soon as the first flag is raised in a state — a realignment almost always in favour of a liquor ban, as seen over the years?

There is limited evidence to suggest that prohibition works. Barring Gujarat, where prohibition was imposed after independence, no state has been successful in the battle against the bottle. Tamil Nadu experimented with it more than once while Andhra Pradesh tried for a short period in the 1990s. In 2014, Mizoram withdrew prohibition after 17 years. Two years later, it constituted a committee to study the economic, social and health impacts of the Act that replaced the Mizoram Liquor Total Prohibition Act, 1995. On the eve of elections last year, the Oommen Chandy government in Kerala announced phased prohibition, although the CPM-led ministry that followed has been indifferent.

Governments are reluctant to ban liquor for two reasons: Alcohol is a major source of revenue and prohibition criminalises production, sale and consumption of alcohol, leading to a flourishing black economy. When Andhra Pradesh lifted prohibition in 1997, then chief minister Chandrababu Naidu, mentioned revenue losses suffered by the state as a reason. Gujarat tweaked its law to allow alcohol in star hotels in a bid to boost tourism. The Kerala CPM’s criticism of Chandy’s liquor policy is also linked to its impact on tourism and hospitality sector. Recently, Finance Minister Thomas Isaac pointed out that the Supreme Court directive on bars along highways would upset the state budget, where Rs 9,000 crore was accounted for from liquor sales.

What drives prohibition

Three broad strands have evolved over the years in the claims made for prohibition in different parts of the country.

One, a moral argument that alcohol is against temperance values. Social-reform movements had championed abstention, which also found a resonance in the Gandhian political tradition. Sree Narayana Guru in Kerala to the Church in Chottanagpur region had insisted that abstention was necessary to reform society and build character in people. Two, an assertion of women’s rights. Women’s movements have been at the forefront of insisting on liquor bans across the country. They project alcoholism as a gender issue, involving violence against women. Three, political groups that represent farmer interests, in states such as Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka, demand a ban on Indian-Made Foreign Liquor and, instead, want the government to promote neera, a palm drink, and allow tapping and sale of toddy, coconut, palmyrah and so on, which are now banned.

However, the key driver behind the prohibition demand is the push from the grassroots, especially from women. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar spotted a constituency in prohibition and banned liquor in the state. In the 1990s, TDP leader N T Rama Rao had taken inspiration from a women’s movement against arrack to promise prohibition in Andhra Pradesh. He won the election and banned liquor in the state. In the 1980s, AIADMK M G Ramachandran banned arrack and introduced government policy to control the sale of liquor. Indeed, women formed a core vote of AIADMK, under MGR and J Jayalalithaa. Of course, a ban on arrack in the 1990s did not help A K Antony’s Congress get re-elected in Kerala. Two decades later, prohibition failed to win Chandy the mandate.

Not a vote winner

Clearly, prohibition is not an electorally bankable issue. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar points out that though there is no evidence that prohibition brings in more votes, it’s seen as a policy that attracts women voters, especially among the rural populace and the poor.

The DMK’s change of mind on prohibition is in line with this view. Under M Karunanidhi, the Dravidian party lifted prohibition from Tamil Nadu in the 1970s. Four decades later, the party promised total prohibition in its manifesto for the 2016 assembly elections. The turnaround started in 2015 with the DMK women’s wing passing a resolution for reducing the number of outlets run by TASMAC, the state agency that controls the distribution of alcohol. The resolution reflected the ferment on the ground with numerous women’s groups protesting against liquor outlets in their neighbourhood, according to Manu Shanmughasundaram, a spokesperson for the DMK. Though these were localised events, political parties, including the DMK, were quick to recognise the potential of mobilising people around prohibition. The death of Sasi Perumal, a prohibition activist, became a rallying point and the stage was set for prohibition to become a poll agenda. Today, the entire political spectrum in Tamil Nadu, from Dalit outfits and communists to Dravidian parties, advocates prohibition or at least abstention.

According to Palshikar, the fact that alcohol consumption among low-income groups is assuming menacing proportions and leading to alcoholism rather than merely drinking, is the basis of the attraction for prohibition. Ironically, while all parties clamour for prohibition, no party undertakes a systematic programme to ensure existing policies and regulations would work and to ensure that alcoholism is controlled socially, he adds.

A political agenda

Medha Patkar, who has been undertaking campaigns across the country for a Nasha Mukt Bharat, believes that Bihar’s experience with prohibition has made it “a political agenda”. She also reads prohibition through the prism of gender rights and women empowerment. The working classes, especially women, are the victims of alcoholism among men, according to her. And, politics that acknowledges the demand of women, she says, has a progressive character. According to Patkar, even among Adivasis there is a rethink on consumption of traditional brew because of the rise in alcoholism. Prohibition fails, according to her, only because of lack of political will to enforce it.

Prohibition has survived in Gujarat, according to Achyut Yagnik, an Ahmedabad-based writer, because a majority of people, particularly women, see it as a blessing. It seems a regulatory system has evolved in the state, with permits and even a bootlegging economy that delivers alcohol to homes, that restricts supply.

Today, the trajectory of prohibition politics seems to have moved from a moral argument to a rights framework. The elite leadership that spearheaded movements for social and politics reforms made the case for prohibition in the last century. Now, it is the subaltern sections that are making the demand. These groups may not, as Palshikar argues, consider the socio-economic context of alcoholism, but are numerically large enough to make their case heard. Political parties may be left with no choice but to conform.

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