Vijay Mallya is just not my type. Bal Thackeray—perish the thought—is even less of my type. Yet, last week I found myself in the bizarre position of actually being in partial agreement with these two bearded gentlemen, of course, with the usual qualifications.
First, Mallya. Following the hooch tragedy in Ahmedabad, where at least 122 people died after drinking illegally brewed liquor, Mallya came down hot and heavy on Gujarat’s prohibition policy (it’s the only state in the country where prohibition continues to be enforced) and on the “political hypocrites” who control that policy. A few days later, Saamna—the Shiv Sena-run newspaper—carried a lead edit that said it was in complete agreement with Mallya. “Pursuing Gandhism is pointless as the prohibition policy has been a monumental failure in the country, and Gujarat as well,” declared the editorial.
Also Read Namita Bhandare’s earlier columns
The editorial is significant for several reasons, not the least of which is the fact that it seems to endorse Thackeray’s fondness for warm beer (I’m not kidding; ask any reporter on the beat).
The Shiv Sena and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are in alliance in Maharashtra and slamming Narendra Modi, who, until a few months ago, was being projected as the BJP’s 2014 prime ministerial candidate, on the eve of elections in Maharashtra might be considered bad form, by at least some people in the BJP.
If you forget for a second that Mallya heads the UB Group, which produces many of India’s best-selling liquor brands, and that he does, therefore, have a vested interest in the lifting of prohibition, you will have to agree that what Mallya says makes sense.
It is an open secret that liquor is freely available throughout Gujarat. I am told the bootleg industry in Narendra Modi’s state is so highly evolved that you can ask for, and get delivered right at your doorstep, some of the more obscure single malts and brands in the world. (As an aside, I am told this is true of Pakistan and many other countries where drinking is officially banned.)
Moreover, I’ve never quite understood the connection between Gujarat and prohibition. Does Gujarat have some special, exalted status because it is the birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi?
In that case, doesn’t the hypocrisy that Mallya speaks of become even more apparent when you remember that Modi was chief minister in 2001 when the state was ravaged by riots against Muslims? If it’s okay to abandon Gandhi’s ideals of secularism and brotherhood, what is the point of clinging to his, admittedly, out-of-date concept of prohibition? And while we’re at it, then why not adopt celibacy and vegetarianism, too?
But wait, the ironies don’t cease, not yet. Here’s my pop quiz of the day: Who was it who “rescued” Gandhi’s artefacts, including a pocket watch, a bowl and a pair of slippers from the grubby little hands of an American collector? It was none other than Mr No-Prohibition-Mallya. So, here’s my question to Mr M: If Gandhi’s values mean so much to you, then why would you want the country’s lone bastion of prohibition to crumble?
The bottom line is this: Prohibition doesn’t work. It failed in the US. It failed in Maharashtra. It failed in Andhra Pradesh (N.T. Rama Rao used it as an election-time bait in 1994, but prohibition resulted in such a loss in excise revenues that the government lifted it after just two years. More recently, Chandrababu Naidu has been talking about bringing prohibition back, if voted to power). Let me say it again, experience has shown that prohibition does not result in abstemious behaviour.
Yet, the connection between prohibition and illegal hooch is tenuous. In Ahmedabad, those who died were poor, working-class men—many of them sole breadwinners—who were looking for a cheap drink. Illegal hooch deaths occur throughout the country, even in states where there is no prohibition. The market for cheap and, unfortunately, dangerous hooch will not disappear even if you lifted prohibition.
And while we’re on the subject of the deadly effects of alcohol, let’s also acknowledge that for every loud and visible hooch tragedy we see, there are just as many—if not more—unsung deaths caused by the side effects of alcohol consumption.
So, should prohibition stay? Of course not. But somewhere along the line we also need to stop glamorizing alcohol. We need to crack down on illegal hooch manufacturers—surely not a monumental task if you really want to do it. We need to break the nexus between corrupt cops and those in authority and the manufacturers of spurious liquor.
And, we need to acknowledge that the time to score brownie points, whether you’re a politician or a liquor baron, is not when we’re still counting the bodies.
Namita Bhandare writes every other Tuesday on social trends. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org