Opinion Op Ed 13 May 2016 A cork on liquor can ...
Sanjay Kumar is a professor and currently director of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. The views expressed are personal.

A cork on liquor can fetch votes

Published May 13, 2016, 1:12 am IST
Updated May 13, 2016, 1:12 am IST
Representational image
 Representational image

Elections come and go, parties win and lose, but the recent campaigns in Kerala and Tamil Nadu indicate a symbolic victory for the ordinary voter. In the campaign, political parties in both Kerala and Tamil Nadu came out in support of prohibition under pressure from public opinion. While prohibition as an electoral issue was absent in both Assam and West Bengal, in Kerala and Tamil Nadu almost all parties are promising to put a cork on liquor with a few shades of difference — some back total prohibition while others want it implemented in phases. While most promises by political parties during a poll campaign remain unfulfilled when they come to power, the promise of prohibition leaves little doubt about its implementation as there is a lot of support among voters, particularly women.

In Bihar, neither the Janata Dal (United) nor the Rashtriya Janata Dal had promised to ban liquor prior to the Assembly polls, but once elected, the “mahagathbandhan” government brought in total prohibition in the state. This despite an estimated Rs 3,500-crore loss to the state exchequer, that accounts for roughly 13.67 per cent of Bihar’s total revenue. It is important to mention that a study by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies found that a majority of people (94 per cent) backed the liquor ban in Bihar, while only six per cent were against it.

Prohibition may seem to have become an electoral issue in Tamil Nadu only recently, but it was actually one of the first states to impose a blanket ban on liquor after Independence. But the DMK government lifted it in 1971, only to reintroduce it in 1974. In 1983, the M.G. Ramachandran government set up the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) for procurement and sale of alcohol in the state. This body was given monopoly status by the AIADMK government led by J. Jayalalithaa, bringing retail sale of alcohol under total government control through TASMAC’s retail outlets.

In the run-up to the May 16 Assembly polls, prohibition figures prominently in the DMK’s manifesto. But the AIADMK has addressed this issue in a different way.
Ms Jayalalithaa has promised if she returns to power, a liquor ban would be introduced in a phased manner. The other parties in the state, like the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), have been consistently demanding total prohibition on alcohol and protesting against the setting up of TASMAC retail outlets by the state government. Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) supremo Vaiko led a march in his native town and forcibly closed down liquor shops in that area.

The PMK’s Anbumani Ramadoss has been quite aggressive in seeking a total ban and has vowed to make Tamil Nadu a “dry state”, and also set up a toll-free number by which people can alert the civic authorities about those who sell and consume liquor. The United Democratic Front (UDF) government in Kerala had implemented its total prohibition policy in 2014 with the objective of becoming a dry state in 10 years. However, its implementation ran into trouble due to allegations of corruption levelled against the government, with bar owners reported to have bribed senior UDF politicians. As of now, the policy in Kerala prohibits the sale and consumption of liquor at retail outlets and bars, the only exception being alcohol served at five-star hotels and toddy shops.

The CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF) doesn’t have a consistent stand on the issue. CPI(M) state secretary Kodiyeri Balakrishnan initially said it would implement total prohibition if voted to power. But later the LDF said alcohol abstinence was a better way to go than total prohibition. The CPI(M) manifesto says it would go in for a phased or gradual reduction in alcohol availability in the state. The party also announced it would raise the legal age for drinking from 21 years to 23 years, and launch a massive mass awareness campaign to acquaint people with the ill-effects of alcohol consumption.

Similarly, the BJP also criticised the UDF government’s total prohibition policy and its vision document states while it doesn’t advocate total prohibition on the sale and consumption of liquor in Kerala, it backs cutting down consumption of liquor in a phased manner. Political parties may not be able to win elections only by promising prohibition in their state as voters do look at other promises made by them, such as providing improved civic facilities like better roads and transport, better electricity, better schools, etc., but the very fact that voters support the idea of banning liquor in totality indicates how health can become an issue that can mobilise voters.

Most supporters of the Bihar ban on the sale and consumption of liquor agreed to it due to the health hazard it posed, followed by the issue of domestic violence and, finally, wastage of money. If Kerala and Tamil Nadu implement prohibition, they would join the ranks of Gujarat, Nagaland, Bihar and Lakshadweep where there is a total ban on the sale and consumption of liquor. The states can make up for their revenue loss by other means: After all, the Gujarat government didn’t suffer a financial crisis.

But the loss of hundreds of lives in different states due to the consumption of hooch can hardly be compensated. Over the past five years, over 200 lives were lost in hooch tragedies in Sangrampur village in West Bengal, Kaalwan village in Punjab, Ghaziabad, Bulandshahr and Varanasi districts in Uttar Pradesh and Mallapuram district in Kerala. Support for liquor bans not only helps save the lives of hundreds of people and families, but can also be a useful electoral strategy for political parties. Bihar CM Nitish Kumar’s decision to prohibit the sale of alcohol is part of an electoral strategy to cater to demands from below. This reflects the growing importance of women voters, a constituency Mr Kumar has nurtured for long.

The available data indicates Mr Kumar had a slight advantage among women voters as compared to men in the recent Bihar elections. If Mr Kumar can create a constituency of women, why can’t the chief ministers of other states? After all, women voters roughly form half the total electorate in most states. One wishes what has begun in Bihar and is being followed in Kerala and Tamil Nadu is also followed in other states. Sadly, we have seen reverses on the prohibition issue in Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Mizoram and Manipur.




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