CHENNAI: Liquor is high on political parties in the Dravidian land with a newfound clamour for prohibition. It is no more an issue confined to the periphery. Even an unlikely crusader has joined the fight against liquor, giving it a near total political consensus. Desperate to stage a comeback, the DMK has found it politically correct to latch on to the popular demand, till now voiced by smaller parties besides Gandhian activists and civil society groups.
Having acquired a momentum of its own, prohibition, now appears to become a potential poll plank in the 2016 Assembly election. No wonder that the wily DMK patriarch, M Karunanidhi, vilified for opening the floodgates of liquor, sprang a surprise last week by joining the chorus for prohibition. His statement was guarded in saying that the party, if elected to power, would try to implement prohibition.
What catapulted the campaign into public discourse were two shocking incidents—a 4-year-old boy was force-fed liquor by his uncle near Vellore and an inebriated school girl created a ruckus in broad daylight in Coimbatore, which went viral on social media. Following public uproar, the toddler’s uncle was arrested while the school girl was advised and let off. Besides giving a fillip to the campaign against liquor, these incidents brought to the fore the need to regulate sale of liquor in the state.
Though the octogenarian is a reluctant new entrant to the campaign, it is an irony that it was his government which lifted prohibition in 1971 on the ground that Tamil Nadu could no longer be an island surrounded by states where liquor flowed freely. “How long Tamil Nadu could remain like camphor untouched by an encircling fire?” was his rationale. However, in 1974, he clamped prohibition, which is conveniently ignored by critics.
While the DMK’s decision has given an impetus to the crusade, it is the PMK which has been most rattled. “For, it has been a pet project of the PMK and it is not surprising that its founder Ramadoss and his son Anbumani cry foul like a child deprived of its toy,” says T Velmurugan of the Tamizhaga Vazhvurimai Katchi, a splinter group of the PMK. In his view, the PMK laying sole claim to the anti-liquor campaign was laughable. “Why the party had never made prohibition a pre-condition for forging electoral alliances with both the DMK and other parties? It was more interested in cornering seats,” he says.
From sporadic fasts by ageing Gandhian Sasi Perumal and grass-root campaign by civil society groups, the issue has entered the political mainstream. MDMK leader Vaiko had carried out a spirited campaign besides padayatras. The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi of Thol Thirumavalavan, DMDK of Vijayakant and the Left parties besides the Congress, BJP and TMC of
G K Vasan are all for prohibition. Neighbouring Kerala closing down liquor shops has also given a push.
With freebies firmly entrenched in Tamil Nadu, the government is heavily dependent upon the revenue from liquor sales to bankroll populist programmes. State-owned TN State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), the sole retailer of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, generated a revenue of `26,188 crore last year. Without this, it would be difficult to sustain the plethora of freebies in the state. Hence, finding alternative sources of revenue remains a big hurdle for any government to proscribe liquor. Further, it had to confront illicit arrack, looming large once prohibition in in place.
However, never before the crusade against consumption has acquired political consensus. And it is only expected that it would be a poll promise of every other party. Despite the rising high decibel campaign, it is still doubtful as to whether prohibition as a poll plank would yield electoral dividends. But, they are not willing to forego an opportunity!
Liquor Policy over the years
■ Prohibition was first introduced in the erstwhile Madras Presidency in 1937 by the Congress government, headed by C Rajagopalachari
■ It was lifted by the DMK government in 1971 and re-introduced in 1975
■ AIADMK founder MGR lifted prohibition in 1981 and established the TASMAC in 1983
■ Prohibition was introduced in 1988 and lifted again in 1990 by the DMK government
■ Prohibition was enforced again during the first tenure of AIADMK supremo Jayalalithaaa, who lifted it in 2001
■ TASMAC became the wholesale monopoly for alcohol, while for retail vending, the state auctioned off licences for running liquor shops and bars
■ In October 2003, the government passed an amendment to the Tamil Nadu Prohibition Act, 1937, making TASMAC the sole retail vendor of alcohol in the state
■ By 2004, all private outlets selling alcohol were either shut down or taken over by the company