20 APRIL 2016
Of populism and prohibition
Across India, States are marching towards total prohibition. Kerala has embarked on a 10-year path to total prohibition, by first limiting the sale of “hard liquor” to five-star bars and restaurants and gradually reducing the number of sale points. Bihar initiated a two-step plan, with a ban on country liquor effective from April 1, followed just days later with a prohibition on the sale of Indian Made Foreign Liquor, bureaucratese for everything other than country brew. Indeed, in a sign of the moral panic that grips political parties at the mention of prohibition, the Bihar Assembly’s successful adoption of the Bill banning country liquor was accompanied by a unanimous resolution by MLAs that they would not consume alcohol. Now a similar competitiveness is playing out in the Tamil Nadu Assembly election campaign. The ruling AIADMK has countered the DMK’s pledge to turn the State dry by affirming a graded shift. This is not the first time India has grappled with the social consequences of alcohol consumption, such as alcoholism, indebtedness and domestic violence. For example, vestiges of prohibition-era practices survive in States such as Maharashtra, though the law tends to realistically look the other way; Gujarat of course continues to remain dry. In recent decades, States such as Haryana and undivided Andhra Pradesh adopted a prohibitory regime, but abandoned it soon after. Whether the current spate of prohibition legislation will sustain is unclear. But once again, the populist solution of prohibition is being offered without attendant focus on the social problems that it seeks to address.
The creep of the nanny state to guard citizens from their worst selves, or at least their lack of self-discipline, is worrying. It is perhaps the overhang of the Gandhian spirit of the Directive Principles of State Policy in the Constitution that inhibits politicians and civil society from shedding hypocrisy and initiating public advocacy of moderation. However, there is a pragmatic case against prohibition as well. Banning the sale and consumption of alcohol has, in this country’s experience, not been an effective check against its use. It has only criminalised the activity, with disastrous consequences for individual health, the economy and administration — these include bootlegging, liquor mafias, spurious liquor, and a complicit police. It also deprives States of an important source of revenue. For instance, in Tamil Nadu nearly Rs.30,000 crore, or over a quarter of its revenue in 2015-16, came from taxes on the sale of alcohol and excise on manufacturing spirits. This income has enabled successive regimes from 2006 onwards to splurge on social sector schemes, especially the trademark programmes to supply free rice to nearly all ration card holders, distribute consumer goods and maintain its pioneering nutritious noon meal scheme for all children in government and aided schools and anganwadis. Certainly, alternative sources of revenue must be found if prohibition can virtuously, magically transform society. That case has, however, not been made, in argument or by experience.
Deepening crisis in Brazil
Brazil’s Lower House of Congress has decided to start impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, inflicting another blow to her and her embattled left-wing party. Ms. Rousseff’s popularity has eroded fast over the last year with a deepening economic crisis and a spreading corruption scandal, in which several of her Workers Party (PT) leaders have been implicated. Some of her recent moves to ride out the crisis, such as appointing former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva as her Chief of Staff, backfired in the face of legal, congressional and political opposition. Even crucial allies in Parliament such as the centrist Brazilian Democratic Movement Party deserted her, providing her rivals the required number of votes in the Lower House to send the impeachment motion to the Senate. It is not yet clear whether her rivals will secure a majority in the Senate to impeach the President. But Brazil appears set to become even more deeply politically polarised given the resolve to press ahead with the impeachment process against a backdrop of daily street demonstrations by those for and opposed to Ms. Rousseff and a virtual collapse of governance.
Few would have imagined that Ms. Rousseff would be engulfed in such a crisis when she was re-elected two years ago, extending the PT’s rule to a fourth consecutive term. Though her margin of victory was not large, it was still comfortable. But ever since her re-election, Brazil’s economy has been on a downward slide, with global commodity prices falling. Ms. Rousseff could do little as the economy slowed down, then stalled and finally slid into the worst recession since the 1930s. Her immediate response was to slash public spending to rein in the deficit, which alienated the core support base of the PT, the working population. Undercut by economic troubles, Ms. Rousseff became an easy target for the opposition, which sniffed an opportunity to end the seemingly interminable PT rule. The opposition’s claims that its battle to remove Ms. Rousseff is a fight against corruption is a cover for a larger power struggle. The President has not been implicated in any corruption case. The impeachment motion is based on allegations that during her 2014 campaign she manipulated government books to hide the real numbers relating to Brazil’s deficit. Ironically, many of her rivals, including House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, the leader of the impeachment campaign, face serious corruption charges. Yes, it is true that Ms. Rousseff could have managed the crisis better. Her ineffectiveness in addressing the country’s vital problems and failure to take allies along are cases in point. However, the opposition’s bid to oust an elected President based on unproven charges of fudging accounts exposes a more Machiavellian game plan. If the impeachment goes through, it would set an unhealthy precedent for a country with a history of coups.