Is Jayalalithaa, outgoing Tamil Nadu chief minister, coming back to power?

If Chennai’s bars are any indication, she is.

 |  IST  |  6-minute read |   14-05-2016
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A quick survey of the bars in Chennai on the evening of Friday the 13th (May), a mere 72 hours before the state goes to the polls on May 16 for 234 seats in the state Assembly, may give you the answer.

The bars are crammed to capacity. The alcohol is flowing like the Cauvery in full flood. The men – please note, there are almost no women here – are thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. There is absolutely no sign that only a few days from now, all this could be a thing of the recently remote past.

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That’s because Tamil Nadu’s major political parties, the AIADMK led by J Jayalalithaa and the DMK led by MK Karunanidhi, have promised to ban liquor if they come to power. Results come in on May 19.

booze_051416125235.jpg A TASMAC liquor shop in Tamil Nadu.

Actually, it was the PMK, a small party led by former health minister in the first UPA government, Anbumani Ramadoss, which first campaigned for prohibition, a charge that has since also been picked up by the Third Front, an alphabet soup of abbreviations led by former film actor Vijaykanth’s DMDK, a pro-Dalit group called VCK led by Thol Thirumavalavan, Vaiko’s pro-LTTE party, MDMK, a breakaway faction of the Congress led by GK Vasan, as well as the CPI and the CPI(M).

Folklore has it that it was the accidental death last year of Gandhian activist Sasi Perumal, who had been agitating for a ban on liquor in the state that lit the spark of prohibition, which has since become a major election plank. It seems Perumal was witness to the ravages of rising alcoholism in Tamil Nadu, especially in the villages and the devastating effect it was having on families.

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All states control their liquor policy, but Tamil Nadu’s rocky relationship with alcohol – as long back as 1937, Salem town in western Tamil Nadu introduced prohibition, which was expanded across the state by the time India became independent in 1947 by then governor-general C Rajagopalachari – has turned it into a fine art.

From 1948-1971, Tamil Nadu went dry. Then when DMK came to power, party president Karunanidhi argued that until the entire country adopted the straight and narrow, Tamil Nadu couldn’t afford to be the only state to take on the nation’s moral burden. "Tamil Nadu is like camphor surrounded by the burning fire of liquor. How long can it remain untouched?" asked Karunanidhi.

If it comes to power, the DMK will of course be forced to eat those famous last words. Over the decades since 1971, liquor has been taken on and off the table several times by every party.

By the time the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation or TASMAC was created in 2003, to manage the sale of both wholesale arrack and Indian-made foreign liquor, nearly 8,000 liquor shops were brought under control.

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The all-powerful government acquired a new weapon, the exclusive sale of booze to its thirsty population. Sales have touched nearly Rs 30,000 crore in recent years.

The TASMAC shop is a unique thing. First of all, it advertises itself loudly, complete with its serial number, a bit like a Kendriya Bhandar store. But unlike the Kendriya Bhandars, the front is a wire mesh from ceiling to floor, with a small cut-out in the wire that serves as the window. It’s as if you have to protect yourself to keep the hordes at bay.

Moreover, each TASMAC is almost always attached to a bar, a shack really, owned by a private citizen who helpfully provides tables and benches and even snacks, so that you can buy yourself a bottle or two of happiness and consume it right next door.

And now the DMK is threatening to cut short that trip. Jayalalithaa is being eminently more sensible, say several people, by promising to bring in the ban in stages.

"The ban is never going to work," says Dara Singh in Edayanchavadi village, which abuts Pondicherry, a union territory where the "French shops" do roaring business. It is noon in these parts and Dara Singh has already consumed three quarters of liquor he has bought in plastic pouches – introduced by DMK’s Karunanidhi in an earlier chief ministerial incarnation.

Certainly, Tamil Nadu will gravitate to these outposts – if prohibition is implemented. Hooch traders will get a new life. Drinking will go underground. All manner of corruption will abound, with drinkers thinking up new ways to get that all-important doctor’s certificate which allows you to tipple regularly, if modestly. Like in Gujarat, the certificate will demand information like "sharaabi ka naam" and "sharaabi ke baap ka naam".

The most important reason against the ban is, of course, financial. With the approximately Rs 30,000 crore the state earns from the sale of liquor, it has been able to implement not only various schemes that have dramatically improved socio-economic indicators like maternal and infant mortality, it has also subsidised the freebies that Tamil parties routinely promise. Jayalalithaa has thrown in 50 per cent off on scooters, 8 grams of gold and Rs 18,000 for pregnant women for good measure in these elections, while the DMK has promised laptops and tablets and the reduced price of milk.

But Tamil Nadu’s women are pointing out that the citizenry’s improved health as a result of the mid-day meal schemes and compulsory education and other quotas for the backward and generally poor - bringing it almost at par with Kerala - are at risk today because increased prosperity has translated into rising alcoholism.

Sasi Perumal’s agitation against this growing threat and his accidental death last year (2015) opened the floodgates of protest – although interestingly, the women are still not swarming at the gates. Their demand to ban liquor remains a silent revolution, although it cuts across castes and class and region. Tamil Nadu’s women are demanding that their men get a hold on themselves. And if they can’t, well, the state better do it.

The DMK was the first to pick up the signs, in the wake of Perumal’s death. It announced it would ban liquor if it came to power, hoping to attract women’s votes beyond those its committed cadres bring.

AIADMK’s Jayalalithaa followed soon after. "Amma’s promise to ban alcohol is a delayed one because the party and state need to recover some of the money she has spent on the elections," admits an AIADMK supporter.

According to one estimate, each candidate in the 234 Assembly seats has been given a Rs 5 crore budget to spend.

If Chennai’s bars are any indication of the mood only a few days before the poll, on May 16, however, Jayalalithaa is back. And if she is, she will create history by being the only person to win a second term since MGR’s death in 1987. Will Tamil Nadu give her a second chance?


Jyoti Malhotra Jyoti Malhotra @jomalhotra

Senior Journalist & President, South Asian Women in Media (SAWM), India.

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