Senior Tamil politicians still recall that rainy Tuesday evening in which India’s last governor general and eminent Gandhian C Rajagopalachari reached the residence of the then chief minister M Karunanidhi with an umbrella in hand to plead with him to revoke the decision to lift prohibition in force in the state. The meeting lasted for about 20 minutes and Rajagopalachari, better known as Rajaji, pleaded with folded hands to Karunanidhi against pushing younger generations into the clutches of alcoholism. It was on 20 July 1971 that his plea was rejected and Rajaji left the chief minister’s residence dejected and disillusioned. Until that day, a total prohibition was in force in Tamil Nadu, where not just the Congress but also all those parties, which inherited the Dravidian legacy, supported the cause of a liquor-free state. Gujarat was the only other state where a total prohibition was in force. During his first term as chief minister, Karunanidhi had decided to lift the ban making an argument of economics.
Much water has flown down the River Coovam since until two weeks ago when Karunanidhi made a U-turn with regard to his approach on prohibition. He now demands the reintroduction of total prohibition. As if alcohol consumption in the state has ‘suddenly’ started adversely affecting family and social relations across the state. In a clear move to canvass votes for his ailing party in the ensuing Assembly election, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) patriarch has said that his party will maintain its ‘newfound’ stance on prohibition in the future if it is voted to power.
As the countdown for the 15th legislative Assembly election begins, Tamil Nadu is witnessing a rare phenomenon. All of a sudden, political parties in the opposition are crying in unison for complete prohibition in the state. Ironically, most of them have been accused of promoting liquor mafias and profiting from the liquor trade whenever they have been in power. Leaders from some of the parties even own distilleries which bottle alcohol for liquor majors. All major political parties in the state, except the ruling AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), have now taken a pro-prohibition stand as a result of which, liquor retail outlets are being subjected to vandalism by angry mobs. According to political pundits, prohibition was a pet project of Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK) founder S Ramadoss until recently and there were hardly any takers for the idea.
Sensing the simmering anger among women in the state against the thriving liquor retail business, leaders including Karunanidhi have been quick to hijack the prohibition agenda from Ramadoss. The death of prominent Gandhian anti- liquor activist Sasi Perumal presented the perfect opportunity for this hijack. A civil society movement is evolving across the state in favour of prohibition after the death of Perumal who had been demanding prohibition for years through an unrelenting and dedicated campaign. He accidentally died during one of his anti-liquor protests in Marthandam in Kanyakumari district. Perumal’s accidental death in the southern most part of Tamil Nadu created waves even in Chennai. Other political parties such as the mdmk (Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam), the DMDK (Desiya Murpokku Dravida Kazhagam) also saw this as a ripe opportunity and jumped into the fray to protest against this ‘social menace’. Interestingly, even the CPI(M) and Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, who is currently touring the state, are echoing similar sentiments
The sudden surge in anti-liquor sentiments among political parties and the unanticipated coming together of all major opposition has put the aiadmk government in the dock. It has happened at a time when both the dmk and the aiadmk governments have exhausted most of their freebies and populist welfare schemes in the state and have been contemplating a viable alternative in the election manifesto this time around. Insiders say that Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, who always had a strong women vote bank, had kept liquor prohibition as a last resort in her election manoeuvres. Unfortunately for her, the PMK stole the idea and started using it as a trump card in its election manifesto while fielding Anbumani Ramadoss as the chief ministerial candidate.
Opposition parties observed a statewide bandh on 4 August to raise the demand for prohibition. Due to surging anti-liquor sentiments, many Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) outlets in the city started closing down. Some of the outlets were attacked and ransacked by mobs of angry protestors. On the other hand, the defiant administration used the police force to bring the protestors under control and lashed out at opposition parties by dismissing turbulence as a “political stunt” in the runup to the forthcoming Assembly elections.