Even at the height of the anti-liquor movement in Tamil Nadu last October, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government slapped sedition charges against folk singer S Kovan for criticising chief minister J Jayalalithaa over her reluctance to ban liquor trade in the state.
A couple of months ago, minister for prohibition and excise Natham Viswanthan declared in the assembly that liquor prohibition was not on the state’s agenda – a move that was welcomed by employees in the liquor trade as well as the Tamil Nadu liquor consumers’ association.
Therefore, it came as nothing short of a shock to other political parties when Jayalalithaa did a volte-face barely a month before the elections – promising phased prohibition in the state. In fact, the move virtually pulled the rug from under the opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK), which wanted to make prohibition one of its main poll planks. Former deputy chief minister and party treasurer MK Stalin had dedicated his mass contact programme – Nammakku Naame – last year to affirming that the M Karunanidhi-led party would enforce prohibition in the state if voted to power.
However, the government’s eleventh-hour move – seemingly aimed at appeasing the state’s sizeable chunk of women voters – also exposed her to sharp attacks from opposition leaders. “What has she been doing for five years now?” chorused opposition leaders EVKS Elangovan of the Congress, Tamilisai Soudarrajan of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Anbumani Ramadoss of the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) and Captain Vijayakanth of the Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam (DMDK) – alleging that her move was inspired by politics, not public welfare.
DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi promised total prohibition in the party manifesto released on Sunday, an assurance that Jayalalithaa criticised by saying that the DMK leader did not have the moral right to assure any such thing when it was he who had lifted the ban way back in 1971.
Tamilisai Soundarrajan, president of the BJP’s Tamil Nadu unit, claimed that neither the DMK nor the AIADMK were serious about enforcing prohibition. “Jayalalithaa’s promise of phased prohibition is as unbelievable as Karunanidhi’s declaration of total prohibition,” she told mediapersons on Monday, adding that the BJP stood for prohibition in the state because it cared for the plight of the poor.
While PMK chief ministerial candidate Anbumani Ramadoss wondered why Jayalalithaa had suddenly remembered prohibition, he did not fail to notice the silver lining in the announcement. “Even so, it is a victory for us as we were the ones who first launched the campaign for total prohibition,” he said.
However, nobody seems to be talking about how the revenue loss of up to Rs 27,000 crore per annum made through the government-monopolised liquor trade will be compensated.
The Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC), which controls the liquor trade in the state, has grown steadily over the years – from Rs 139.41 crore in 1983-84 to Rs 7,335 crore in 2005-06 and now to over Rs 27,000 crore. There are about 6,800 liquor outlets in the state.
Prohibition was first introduced at Salem in 1937, and then implemented in other parts of the state in phases. In 1971, the DMK government headed by M Karunanidhi withdrew prohibition in view of the state’s “bleak economic situation”.