After Kerala and Bihar, Tamil Nadu now rakes up the Prohibition issue ahead of state polls

Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) President M Karunanidhi, late on Monday night, issued a statement saying that if elected to power the DMK would “in an endeavour to usher in change, take steps to enforce Prohibition in the state”.

The immediate reaction from 68-year-old Sunitha Pasupathy, a resident of Chennai, was one of disbelief. “He is just fooling us,” said Pasupathy, a home-maker. “Not just him, all the politicians in the state just take us for jokers. These politicians are taking us for a ride,” she said.

The crisis of confidence with the DMK is so widespread that Karuna’s son and heir apparent MK Stalin was, on Tuesday, forced to issue a statement reiterating his father’s statement. “The Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam has always been a Kazhagam (organisation) that has done what it has said,” he said. “We will enforce Prohibition in 2016 and prove our words,” he insisted.

“As far as the issue goes, of course I fully support the call for Prohibition,” continued Sunitha Pasupathy. “Too many women are suffering at the hands of drunk husbands in the state. Prohibition is a must,” she said.

Voices like Pasupathy’s are the reason for the Southern politician and his Dravidian behemoth to take the plunge and tentatively announce support for the call for Prohibition reverberating in the state. Campaigners for the cause are ecstatic – this is the first time a major political party in Tamil Nadu has taken a stand on the issue ahead of a crucial Assembly election in 2016.

“We whole-heartedly welcome the decision by the DMK particularly when it has been announced at a time when a 12th standard student in Coimbatore was lying drunk on the streets, and we saw that small children were forced to drink alcohol,” said Senthil Arumugam of NGO Satta Panchayat Iyakkam, who has been campaigning extensively for Prohibition. “The DMK should implement it in letter and spirit. The ruling party should take a message from this statement. If DMK announces, then it means that there is a votebank behind this. This is going to be an electoral issue. If the AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) wants to play it smart, they can announce Prohibition before polls itself. At least they should announce a reduction in the number of liquor shops,” he said.

It is a curious about-turn for the DMK, which had revoked Prohibition in the state in 1971 under then Chief Minister M Karunanidhi. His predecessor CN Annadurai had, during his reign, refused to revoke the ban. At the time, Karunanidhi’s rationale for revoking the ban on alcohol was one of economy – the state needed finances in its coffers. “Tamil Nadu cannot serve as camphor in the midst of raging fire,” he had said at the time.

Karunanidhi chose not to dwell for long on the reasons behind this move by the DMK except to allude to a big cry for Prohibition in the state and the fact that not just men, but women and children too are consuming alcohol.

A source within the DMK who did not wish to be named told Swarajya that the reason behind this move is purely political. “When all other parties have started talking about it, we cannot be lagging behind,” said the source who was party to the 3-month long discussions on the issue within the DMK. “There are a lot of health effects, social effects including domestic violence being linked to alcohol. But Prohibition cannot be imposed suddenly. It has to be done in a phased manner,” he said. Another reason for this move is the fact that surveys done by the party show that Prohibition is a key electoral issue in Tamil Nadu, especially amongst women.

Reservations against Prohibition were expressed several times at meetings of the DMK core committee. The key issue with Prohibition is that one-third of the state’s total revenue – close to Rs 30,000 crores – which come from the Tamil Nadu Sales and Marketing Corporation (TASMAC) would vanish overnight. TASMAC has the sole monopoly of liquor distribution in the state. A ban on liquor sales would severely hit the state finances, especially with public debt estimated at over Rs 2 lakh crores in the current fiscal.

“Yes, we will take a huge hit on finances,” said the DMK source. “We are debating internally on how to make up for that if we come to power in 2016. We will have to raise prices – maybe people will have to go back to paying Rs 2 per kilogram of rice which is free now. We will also have to cut back on some schemes but the people are suffering, so we have to find a way,” he said.

One of the options being debated within the DMK is the possibility of re-introducing the Permit Raj. “We may not follow the Kerala model,” said the source. “Instead we might consider going back to issuing permits and quotas for alcohol consumption. Slowly we will phase out alcohol. That is one option we are looking at,” he said. Discussions are also on about the need for rehabilitation and support for addicts.

Whether this announcement will help the languishing Dravidian party and whether the electorate will, in fact, believe an ageing Karunanidhi notorious for his flip-flops on such issues, will be seen in 2016. But for the moment, the DMK’s announcement indicates that there will be no “freebies” like colour TVs in the 2016 party manifesto. The ball is now in Jayalalithaa’s court, as the only politician who has not taken a stand on the call for Prohibition.

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