Politicians in Kerala and Tamil Nadu have gone on a high over prohibition this poll season. The ruling Congress in Kerala had a head start over its rival CPM since the Oommen Chandy government had promised to phase out liquor some months ago. The state CPM has fought shy of promising prohibition while its general secretary, Sitaram Yechury, nearly endorsed the Congress project. State leaders have since engaged in a war of words over the bottle. In neighbouring Tamil Nadu, the DMK has pledged prohibition in its manifesto whereas the AIADMK wants to adopt the Kerala model. The People’s Welfare Front that includes “Captain” Vijayakanth, Vaiko, the communists and the VCK, too, has announced that it stands for a ban on liquor. The PMK, on its own this election, has declared it will not just ban the sale of alcohol but also prosecute those who are found “under the influence of alcohol”.
Barring the PMK, none of the pro-prohibition parties proposes the alcohol ban as a moral argument. It’s the social cost of alcoholism, especially on women and the family, that is being held out by politicians to justify prohibition. The gender aspect of this argument is politically significant since women are in the forefront of the demand for prohibition. Alcoholism, no doubt, is often the cause of domestic violence and a major reason for the pauperisation of many families. But, surely, it isn’t the only reason. Patriarchy is a far more complex issue that calls for a wide range of social and cultural interventions. The promise to ban liquor is a populist response, which has proven to be an inadequate and impractical solution to the ills of alcoholism. Past experience from states that have tried prohibition, including Tamil Nadu, reveals that the policy only drives the liquor trade underground. It results in the manufacturing of spurious liquor and the creation of a black market. The post-prohibition political economy taxes the poor, in whose name the policy is enforced, more than anyone else. Supply restrictions invariably lead to a spike in liquor prices and drive the poorer consumers to spurious products that pose a health risk. Moreover, excise revenues contribute a large share of state finances and it makes no sense to encourage a black economy in liquor trade.
The more practical strategy for parties is to promote abstention than pursue prohibition. Alcoholism is an addiction that may require institutional intervention. A liquor ban is a shortcut that skirts the real issues.