It is early days yet for the anti-liquor movement in Tamil Nadu. Though a number of political parties and senior politicians have lent their voice of support to the movement, the protests are as yet sporadic and nowhere near what can be construed as a mass movement.

But the development is nevertheless significant in more ways than one. Not even in the days of the 1970s when States began freeing up the trade in alcohol one by one, had liquor been a serious electoral issue. Certainly the ruling parties of the day in Karnataka and Maharashtra, to name just two examples, which were the earliest to lift the ban on alcohol, returned with thumping majorities in the elections that ensued.

Equally, the opposite, namely re-imposing of ‘prohibition’, has not paid much electoral dividend. In 1974, the DMK re-imposed prohibition after allowing it for three years since being re-elected to power in 1971. But in the elections that were held after the lifting of the Emergency in 1977, it was the AIADMK led by MGR that won in Tamil Nadu.

Not all the appeal of Karunanidhi as the saviour of women from the evil of ‘drink’ could match the popular appeal of MGR among the same womenfolk in what turned out to be a straight two-way contest!

Even the victory of Bansi Lal in the Haryana elections in 1996 or the victory of NT Ramarao in Andhra Pradesh first in 1983 and again in 1994 could not be attributed solely to their promise of imposing ‘prohibition’ as there were other factors, too, at work.

For Bansi Lal, it was the caste affinity of a dominant caste to which he belonged, that played a major part. For Rama Rao, his appeal to ‘Telugu Pride’ in the 1983 election and the anti-incumbency factor against the Congress Party in 1994 were as much responsible for his victory as any promise of re-imposing the ban on liquor in the State.

The dalliance

In any case, the public have by now become inured to the prospect of the ruling party promptly going back on its promise after coming to power. The dalliance with prohibition lasted all of three years, in Haryana. In the case of Andhra Pradesh, one of the first acts of Chandrababu Naidu who overthrew NTR in an internal coup and took over as chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was to lift the ban on sale of liquor.

Having said that, it would be unwise to write off the prospects of the present anti-liquor movement in Tamil Nadu spinning into a genuine mass movement or, for that matter, becoming a serious electoral issue nearer the assembly election which is a mere nine months away.

History is replete with acts of crystal gazing that have exploded disastrously in the face of those making predictions. Remember the famous assessment of Thomas Watson Senior, the founder of IBM, when he thought that there existed perhaps a global market for five computers at best?

It is worth bearing in mind that the anti-Hindi agitation in 1965 too had a rather modest beginning with the then opposition party, the DMK, calling upon the public to wear black flags on Republic Day, the day Hindi was to become the sole official language displacing English altogether.

But in less than two weeks the movement had engulfed the whole State leading to schools and colleges being shut for an extended period. In the elections that followed in 1967, the Congress Party received one of its severest electoral drubbings from which it has yet to recover in all these years. It is in the nature of protest action that there has to be a gestation period before it acquires a momentum of its own and with a bit of help in the form of administrative ineptness in handling the situation, it can truly become a mass movement in double quick time.

Who knows, if it succeeds in capturing the imagination of the Tamil public and even proves to be a decisive factor in the forthcoming election, then other political parties in other States might be tempted to play the ‘prohibition’ card if only in the hope that it might resonate in voters’ minds come election time.

Money matters

But political parties no longer have the luxury of promptly announcing a ban on sale of liquor on assuming power and bravely plod on with the fiscal consequences of their decision for at least the next two to three years, as they have done in the past. This time it is different. One, their dependence of liquor revenues is far greater than it was in the past. Two, State finances are in worse shape than 20 years ago, which wasn’t in the least robust, to begin with.

Lastly, the scope and scale of programmes of government intervention in the lives of the common man has expanded so much that a State no longer has the luxury of even a minor disruption, leave alone a structural transformation that a sudden imposition of ‘prohibition’ can bring about in the fiscal situation. It is no longer a case of impose ‘prohibition’ now and face bankruptcy three years down the road. It is default, here and now.

That leaves only the other alternative of stringing the public along with the promise of imposing ‘prohibition’ in the near future with some token measures along the way (reduce the number of retail outlets, shut down bars, etc) and then appeal to the public around election time, for another term of office, to fulfil the unfinished agenda! It just might work. If not, the tactic would at least have been worth one successful shot at power. It is all fair in war, love and now you might say, politics as well.

The alternative

But it doesn’t have to be so. There is a better alternative having the twin features of a sensible policy on alcoholic beverages and promotion of public welfare. For too long, the policy has been hostage to over-centralisation within the framework of it being a ‘state’ subject. Whether the ‘state’ must have a policy of prohibiting consumption of alcoholic beverages or not could justifiably be centralised in the hands of the government at the state capital.

But should it also seek to lay down which village or village cluster must have a retail outlet in case it decides against ‘total prohibition’? Let us leave it to the duly elected village ‘panchayats’ to decide if they want to have a retail outlet for selling liquor.

Similarly, the villages may be told that even as the revenues from sale of liquor would devolve on the villages themselves (through some structured means of financial devolution) the corresponding burden of food and power subsidy in proportion to the village population too, would devolve on them.

We can trust the collective wisdom of a few thousand people to make the right choices. Economic theory tells us that there are diminishing returns to scale. The choices that a few thousands make need not, therefore, be inferior to the choices that a few crore population of a State collectively make.