At the height of anti-alcohol protests in Tamil Nadu last year, Sasi Perumal went up a telephone tower with a can of kerosene, threatening to set himself on fire unless a local liquor shop was closed. As police tried to persuade him to come down, Perumal appeared to suffer a fatal cardiac arrest.
The 59-year-old campaigner’s death marked a turnaround in the debate over prohibition in the state, with all political parties promising to ban or restrict alcohol if voted to power in elections next month.
The Tamil parties are the latest to back prohibition in India, where a growing number of grassroots movements are pushing local governments to ban drinking. But more than any moral force, politicians appear to back such calls because they dovetail into the rights of women, a substantial vote-bank in any state.
“There is rich political dividend to be had from supporting prohibition,” Suhas Palshikar, professor of politics and public administration at the University of Pune, told Hindustan Times.
“The promise to introduce prohibition is seen as one of the reasons Nitish Kumar may have received wide support among women voters in last year’s elections in Bihar.”
India’s experience with prohibition is patchy. In the 1990s, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu briefly swore off the bottle before a cash crunch drove the states to see alcohol’s revenue-earning power. Bihar experimented with prohibition in the 1970s but lax enforcement saw the ban being eventually lifted.
Two years ago, Mizoram lifted prohibition after almost 20 years. Today, Gujarat, Nagaland, Bihar and parts of Manipur remain dry, although the ban is observed more in the breach. Kerala too is on its way to banning drinking.
Much of the moral weight of prohibition comes from Mahatma Gandhi’s injunctions against alcohol as well as a constitutional desire to ban a habit seen as hobbling the country’s fight against poverty, especially in the countryside. Women’s groups say alcohol fuels domestic violence and encourages men to fritter away meagre family incomes on the bottle.
A measure of prohibition’s political appeal is evident in Nitish Kumar’s move . His supporters say his decision is linked to political plans beyond the state, especially after he emerged as the nucleus of anti-BJP politics following his resounding victory last year.
“There is no denying that his image has got a further boost after this decision and this happens with any positive work anybody does,” said Shivanand Tiwary, a former associate of Nitish Kumar and former Rajya Sabha MP.
In Gujarat, where a drinking ban has been in force for half a century, the government’s partial easing of prohibition for visitors is now a potential election issue.
The powerful Kshatriya-Thakor community in North Gujarat is cranking up its campaign, unhappy over the Anandiben Patel government issuing new liquor shop licences and its inability to tamp down on country-made alcohol.
They warn the BJP government to act fast or lose their support, although many believe such threats have more to do with extracting from the government more concessions for the community than any desire to fight drinking.
“Every year thousands of people die after consuming locally brewed liquor. This is an important issue for the next elections,” said Alpesh Thakor, convener of Kshatriya-Thakor Sena.
Similar calls for an alcohol ban are being given out in Jharkhand and Rajasthan, leaving many analysts to predict prohibition will only climb on the list of politicians’ popular policy choices.
“Prohibition is marketed a policy that empowers women, a policy that preserves the idea of a happy family life,” said Pune University’s Palshikar.
“So, it’s quite natural it will find a sympathetic response from a large section of the society, mainly women. Political parties want to encash this.”
(Additional reporting by Hiral Dave in Ahmedabad, Vijay Swaroop in Patna and KV Lakshmana in Chennai)