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The 'battle for the bottle' in India’s Gujarat state

The home state of Mahatma Gandhi refuses to lift prohibition despite the ubiquitous bootlegger in its neighborhoods

Indian lawmakers of the Aam Aadmi Party hold placards during a protest in New Delhi on July 26 against the Bharatiya Janata Party led-government after at least 24 people allegedly died due to consuming bootleg liquor in Gujarat state

Indian lawmakers of the Aam Aadmi Party hold placards during a protest in New Delhi on July 26 against the Bharatiya Janata Party led-government after at least 24 people allegedly died due to consuming bootleg liquor in Gujarat state. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 01, 2022 10:03 AM GMT

Updated: September 01, 2022 10:04 AM GMT

India’s apostle of peace, Mahatma Gandhi, would turn in his grave if he were to witness the "battle for the bottle" in his home province Gujarat ahead of crucial state polls later this year.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bête noire and old war horse, Shankarsinh Vaghela, has once again thrown his hat in the electoral ring. Nothing surprising about it except the octogenarian’s grand plan to gather votes by promising a free flow of alcohol in a state that has had a prohibition law in place since its foundation in 1960.

Vaghela’s new outfit, the Praja Shakti or People’s Power Democratic Party (PSDP), is promising voters to lift the alcohol ban if voted into power. The 82–year-old has been chief minister of Gujarat and a federal minister before and knows well that his announcement is asking for trouble. A strong backlash from Gandhians, women activists and the moral brigade is assured.

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But then the maverick politician has nothing to lose. He has had his innings during a political career spanning more than five decades, during which he has been a member of the Jan Sangh, the precursor to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Congress and its breakaway Nationalist Congress Party.

Any success for Vaghela’s latest outfit, like his earlier two bids at floating a political party, looks remote but his announcement has become the major talking point in dry Gujarat.

This is not the first time that a political outfit has promised to legalize alcohol in the state. Five years ago, on the eve of the previous assembly election, the now defunct Smart Party floated by former police officer-turned lawyer Rahul Sharma had promised to do away with the prohibition policy.

"It is argued that the false morality in the name of Gandhi is costing the state dearly" 

Sharma’s party did not even take off. It had no takers. So, the battle of the bottle fizzled out without even a trace.

Even this time around, it is unlikely that the former chief minister will get popular support in what is expected to be a keenly contested election between the ruling BJP, the opposition Congress and the latest entrant, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) made up of anti-corruption activists-turned politicians. 

Parthesh Patel, a close aide of Vaghela, says it was not as if his leader had just hit upon the idea. He has been giving it serious thought for around two years.

“Let’s face the truth. Liquor prohibition is not successful and alcohol is being smuggled from neighboring Rajasthan and Maharashtra states and sold by bootleggers in Gujarat, which is known as one of the highest liquor consumption states in the country,” he says.

In other words, it is argued that the false morality in the name of Gandhi is costing the state dearly, with an estimated annual revenue loss of around Rs 400.6 million (about US$5,000,000).

This income could be put to good use, to provide free education and better health care.

"Prohibition should be lifted so that men who are habitual drinkers don’t risk their lives"

Patel says a survey conducted by his team found that 10 million of the state’s 63 million people drink alcohol occasionally. The rich and affluent procure ‘health permits’ allowing them to access alcohol legally while the poor are left with no choice. They mostly consume spurious liquor and end up dead, as happened tragically in Botad district recently when more than 60 people lost their lives.

The women who lost their husbands reportedly told Vaghela that prohibition should be lifted so that men who are habitual drinkers don’t risk their lives.

At the other end are the nonresident Indians (NRIs) from Gujarat who would love their home state to keep in step with global standards of doing business and providing pleasure.

What if there is a backlash? Vaghela’s party says it will challenge the Gandhians to introduce strict prohibition in Maharashtra, Rajasthan bordering Gujarat, as well as capital Delhi and tourist paradise Goa.

“There cannot be different policies for different states. It does make sense. Why only Gujaratis? Every Indian should be prepared to follow Gandhian morals,” argue some affected Gujaratis.

And yet Vaghela appears to be the lone wolf at the moment. There are not many in the state who will openly support his call.

"Politicians will continue to be in denial mode, swearing by Gandhi and pretending all is well"

Even his former mates in the BJP feel Vaghela is on “the wrong track” just to “hog the limelight.”  

Former chief minister, Suresh Mehta, says there is no need to review the prohibition policy. In fact, there is a need to implement it strictly to end bootlegging.

Echoing Mehta, Vidyut Joshi, a sociologist, said: “Gujarat is different from other states and will remain dry. It has a liberal business ethos. People here do not like to consume alcohol; only 30 percent are regular drinkers.”

From what they say, Gujarat will remain a land influenced by numerous Hindu and Jain religious sects that preach and promote teetotalism.

Politicians will continue to be in denial mode, swearing by Gandhi and pretending all is well, despite the bootlegger who is ubiquitous in every neighborhood across the state.  

It will take a long time before the battle for the bottle is decisively fought and won in the native land of the Mahatma.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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