Politics of Prohibition

The relationship that Asian societies have with alcohol is very different from that of the Alcoholics Anonymous prism through it’s largely viewed in contemporary popular culture. The special place rice and sake enjoy in Japanese society, for instance, is something that’s far removed from the puritan roots that this prism deploys. The wonderfully chronicled exploration Japan, Alcoholism, and Masculinity: Suffering Sobriety in Tokyo makes this case forcefully.

Paul Christensen details how drinking as a social ritual defines masculinity and therefore is considered essential for men in Japan. To the extent that staying sober for recovering alcoholics is a near impossible task. One is tempted to hypothesize that such social custom prevails in all agrarian societies that grow labor intensive crops like rice. Viewed from that perspective, the modern cry for prohibition in Tamil Nadu not only seems like the hollow cry of a politician but also one that ignores civilizational ethos.

The recent opposition noise on prohibition, however, can be understood in simple political calculus of conventional wisdom. All political parties, rightly or wrongly, believe that prohibition is an issue that wins at least some women and some votes. This was true of 1920s America and it’s true for 1970s Tamil Nadu. It’s also a simple fact of politics in Tamil Nadu that the AIADMK enjoys a double digit lead over DMK among women. This has been true for a long time. The appeal of Jayalalitha as a lonely woman battling the men of an ugly system being the reason why many women vote for her despite all her flaws has far too many anecdotes and no real study to back it up. But the corollary that the DMK is essentially a party of urban working class men is well entrenched even among the party’s own cadre.

The numerical supremacy of AIADMK as the largest party in Tamil Nadu is supported by how its losses in terms of actual votes when it’s defeated is never as bad as that of the DMK. When all other things are equal and all parties contest independently, the AIADMK is most likely to win. An opposition party in such a scenario will look to erode the advantage among women. That’s simple politics. But the other question is: why now?

The answers may be varied. Perhaps the DMK hired new political consultants who focus group tested and found this to have increased resonance. Perhaps the DMK was forced into it because smaller parties were otherwise using this issue to usurp opposition space. But whatever the case, that M Karunanidhi, MK Stalin and Durai Murugan actually stood/sat on a stage and said prohibition was their struggle does raise a chuckle. One that is far more worthy of thought than the laughter a similar invocation by Vijayakanth evokes. It was the DMK, when MGR revoked prohibition, that made the only argument remotely in favor of prohibition in poor societies: the excise duty on alcohol shifts the burden of taxation as a percentage of revenue that the state earns towards the poor.

Somewhere, one thinks, M Karunanidhi would have silently read and translated Paul Christensen into Tamil.