Tamil Nadu Assembly polls: Liquor prohibition, a small cause in this election

Chennai: Liquor prohibition, which dominated the popular discourse during the last Assembly elections in Tamil Nadu, has become a cause dearer to smaller parties but not the Dravidian majors this time around.

Five years ago, while the DMK promised in its manifesto that it would bring in total prohibition on priority, the AIADMK under Jayalalithaa had said the same would be implemented in phases beginning with reduction in the number of liquor vending shops. The current DMK manifesto made no mention of the idea of prohibition, while the AIADMK made a fleeting mention about phased prohibition in its poll document, though in the last five years there was no significant closure of a number of liquor shops.

In contrast, allies of the DMK – be it the Congress, CPM or MDMK – have placed prohibition on the priority list. So have the PMK and the Tamil Maanila Congress, both constituents of the AIADMK-led National Democratic Alliance.

Retail vending of liquor was done by private players in Tamil Nadu until the turn of the millennium. However, to put an end to cartels and increase revenue, in her second regime (2001-06), then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa had established retail vending points through the Tamil Nadu State Marketing Corporation (TASMAC). This was one policy which the succeeding DMK Government did not reverse and since then liquor in Tamil Nadu has come to be colloquially called ‘TASMAC’.

Intermittently there were protests to shut down TASMAC outlets but it peaked when Sasi Perumal, who called himself a Gandhian, took up the cause. In July 2015, Sasi Perumal died after a fall from a mobile phone tower, which he climbed to stage a protest seeking closure of a TASMAC shop. This had turned into a rallying point for the opposition parties and they staged intense protests forcing Jayalalithaa to announce that she will implement prohibition in phases.

However, after her party won a successive term in power and her subsequent death, the issue was almost put in cold storage except for token closure of shops and reduction in shop operating time.

Now this is no longer a priority for the AIADMK and DMK. “The debt burden to the Government due to freebies is so high that it needs TASMAC revenue to keep the exchequer running. There is no way the State could do without this revenue,” said a policy maker, requesting anonymity.

Also, some of the distilleries are run by influential leaders of the AIADMK and DMK and they don’t want their own revenue drying up. DMK women’s wing leader Kanimozhi, when confronted once on why her party leaders can’t close their liquor factories had merely said that if prohibition is in place then they would automatically wind up.

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