Modi’s praise for Nitish’s liquor ban has made the industry, tipplers worried
Former prime minister Morarji Desai was a strong votary of imposing total prohibition and he made serious efforts in this direction during the post-Emergency, Janata Party rule. Desai had coaxed chief ministers in 1977 to enforce complete prohibition in their states. But except for Tamil Nadu, old Bombay state, which is present day Maharastra and Gujarat, not many states really bothered to enforce a ban on liquor consumption. In the days before independence, Mahatma Gandhi, JB Kriplani and Morarji Desai had campaigned vigorously against consumption of alcohol. Off and on, prohibition was imposed in different states at different periods, drawing inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi. Article 47 of the Indian Constitution lays down the Directive Principles of State Policy, relating to prohibition, which states, “…(the government) shall endeavour to bring about prohibition of the consumption, except for medicinal purposes, of intoxicating drinks and of drugs which are injurious to health”. However, the policy relating to liquor consumption has been classified as a state subject, giving chief ministers full powers to enforce prohibition in their respective states. It’s this power that chief minister Nitish Kumar used to impose full prohibition in Bihar last year. In Gujarat, this ban has been in force for over two decades, notwithstanding resistance from the industry, tipplers and other stakeholders. Kumar utilised the 350th anniversary of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Govind Singh, to nudge prime minister Narendra Modi for imposing prohibition across the country. Modi’s endorsement of Kumar’s prohibition policy and bonhomie between the two leaders was seen as precursor to the changing political matrix. But more significantly, there were some speculation about Modi adopting a Moraji Desai-like anti-liquor policy across the country. For this to happen, obviously, all chief ministers have to come on board and a national consensus across the political spectrum becomes a prerequisite. More importantly, achieving unanimity within the BJP may be a big issue for prime minister Modi and party president Amit Shah. Unlike demonetisation, people’s hostility to such a move would not even be concealed. Its implications for the states’ finances are very huge, given that excise earnings form a large part of state revenues. This was precisely the reason why the late J Jayalalithaa resisted the temptation of promising total prohibition to garner votes in the Tamil Nadu assembly elections last year. Revenue considerations led the Telugu Desam government in Andhra Pradesh to revoke the liquour ban introduced by party’s founder chief minister N T Rama Rao. Millions of jobs associated with the liquor industry would be at stake while export revenues would be hit if Modi were to take Nitish Kumar’s demand seriously. The growth of tourism, hospitality and allied industries are certain to be stymied, while fresh work opportunities in these sectors may be limited. The prime minister needs to think twice – even more - before even contemplating a liquor ban.