The Covid-19 induced lockdown has forced people to stay indoors for weeks together. And other than essentials shops, everything else, including liquor shops are shut by Government. Like all Government actions this one too took time to be fully effective. Giving an opportunity to some tipplers to stock up. But then PM Modi, a teetotaler, assuming the highest office in the country outthought them. The lockdown was extended for another fortnight. Somehow, drinkers managed. They borrowed from fellow boozers, they even compromised on the brand. Few resorted to buying stuff from the black market. They were waiting for 3rd May, for the lockdown to end. To their horror, well ahead of the date, when news channels blared… Lockdown 3.0! The Pandemic struck!
But as they say, God is kind. And he smiled. This time lockdown was extended with a rider. Most of the states decided that they are going to open alcohol shops. And on D-Day, when the lockdown was extended, tipplers were getting ready to buy a bottle of their favorite drink. If images on social media are to be believed, people were queueing outside liquor Shops as early as 7 am. As shops opened, the queues were broken, shirts were pulled & torn, people even climbed atop each other! All this, to get a bottle of alcohol. At the end of the day what stood out was two pictures where no struggle is visible. The first, a printed bill of Rs 52000 with many bottles of Indian Made Foreign Liquor (IMFL) on it. Then another one, a young chap with a mask on, hands full with a box of liquor and a few bottles on top of it. I was shocked!
Must declare, I am not a teetotaler. But this is something else. I never imagined people would be this desperate for a drink, that they will risk their own lives. No doubt, this reflects deeper malice in society.
However what followed this booze buying binge was much worse. Assorted Feminists, Left-Liberal journalists, Islamists, lowly rated actors, virtue signal traders and also well-intentioned individuals / social workers went outrageous. A page 3 personality from Pune, who also doubles up as Congress spokesperson, asked whether was there any Muslim in the queue? A c-grade actor cum item dancer was worried about domestic abuse! A famous Stand-up comedian thought people in line are ‘Stupid’. This is nothing but a deadly mix of agenda peddling and hypocrisy! A regular practice by page 3 personalities to stay relevant.
But what got me worried was responses of social influencers who seemed genuinely worried about the ill effects of drinking. The problem is most of them are hellbent on treating Drinking as a forbidden thing. For them, this is as bad as drugs or theft or even a fraud. And this mindset is actually counterproductive. The dry days or shutting down liquor shops pushes people to have illegal & spurious stuff. Also these good folks are unaware of the change in society. What was taboo a few decades back is fashionable today. Today a Son drinks with father while adolescent kids are watching. Treating liquor as a taboo thing actually pushes people to have it even more badly.
More importantly, they are also ignorant of the financial calculation behind state finances and a societal ill called subsidy seeking. Today most of the states, practice, what can be called, Broken Window Economics. This is how it works. Subsidies or handouts have been a part of vote-seeking machinations and budgets since Nehru. Every subsequent Government has only increased subsidies by squeezing middle-classes to pay for freebies to the poor. But the real game-changer in subsidy politics was introduced by Tamil Nadu CM, J Jayalalitha. In October 2003, her government passed an amendment, making TASMAC (Govt owned company) the sole retail vendor of alcohol in the state. Since then state revenues out of alcohol sales have jumped 10 times, allowing it to take spend on welfare schemes to record levels. Following this, poor in TN were in for a bonanza. First Jayalalitha and Karunanidhi later started giving away mixies, TV, table fans, laptop, bicycles, etc. This redefined the meaning of subsidy and state-citizen relations forever. The state of Tamil Nadu is a pioneer of Broken Window Economics.
In 2006, with Manmohan Singh as PM, Congress came up with equally destructive but much more imaginative money waster – NREGA. The program is so popular, that 15 years on, after a regime change, even one of the most popular government has not touched it. Contrary, PM Modi has endorsed NREGA and successive BJP Governments have increased the spend on it. BJP also added its own handout programs to the list. But more than the programs, what BJP did was using Jan Dhan accounts to transfer DBT benefits to beneficiaries’ accounts. And went to town with it. It did pay handsomely in the 2019 elections, ensuring 300 plus seats.
Now, what BJP’s 300 seats have to do with opening up liquor shops in Lockdown? A lot! Many states today, some ruled by BJP some by the opposition, run some or other variants of the TASMAC model. Other than TN, in Kerala and Delhi, it’s the Government that controls the wholesale and retail liquor business. In AP, Odisha, Bihar, CG, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand, Karnataka and Bihar Government runs Wholesale liquor business, leaving retail to private players. In short, all states are dependent upon revenues from liquor sales to run this ‘Welfare State’. As per one estimate, on average 20 % of the state’s revenues are generated from liquor sales. Now, due to Covid-19 induced lockdown, the economy has run into a strong headwind. For the next few weeks at least, the GST accruing out of travels, or hotel stays or vehicle sales has stopped. So from where can quick buck come? Of course through liquor sales! Hence all this haste to open the liquor shops.
And they were right. The amount of revenue generated through liquor sales in just 2 days is mind-boggling. The pictures of frenzied mobs at liquor shops have generated outrage and put Governments under pressure. Forcing them to literally shut shop for a while. But most of the states are planning to resume liquor sales after a short gap. Thankfully it seems they have found a way around the law preventing home delivery and very soon alcohol will be delivered at doorsteps.
Frankly speaking, the Government has done well on managing the Corona Crisis until now. But this ‘Opening Liquor Shop’ piece has exposed one big chink in the armor. Its empty coffers. It has also exposed the fact that many people do not treat drinking as a taboo anymore. Page 3 personalities, Sundry Actors and Virtue Signal Traders can whine. Hardly anyone takes them seriously.
But, genuine well-wishers and social activists who clap PM Modi for every new Welfare program, need to introspect. This is nothing new or different. BJP’s copying straight out of Congress playbook. The way BJP sought votes by tom-tomming various subsidy schemes in 2019, it will not be possible for it to change the narrative quickly. As I was about to end this piece, I came across this free eyeglasses for kids scheme by the Maharashtra Government. Chances are, that if your kid comes back with a free school bag or lunch box, it’s financed by one of the drunkards.
Now if BJP wants to avoid UPA 2’s embarrassment it needs to push reforms so that the economy is back on its feet and can take care of the poor. Or keep on selling more and more liquor to cross-subsidize welfare schemes.