Why Chouhan's rollback of a decision on liquor sale is important for the BJP

Though the Congress also has had great affinity for liquor mafiosi, it jumped at the opportunity of alleging a secret understanding between the BJP and the liquor barons.

Chandrakant Naidu January 12, 2014 15:31:14 IST
Why Chouhan's rollback of a decision on liquor sale is important for the BJP

Back- to- back elections can freeze the convictions of political parties. Just before the elections for Madhya Pradesh Assembly the BJP’s populist announcements included rice and wheat and salt at Rs 1/kg to the poor. The state government proudly announced that people could run their households for a month on just two days’ wages.

Why Chouhans rollback of a decision on liquor sale is important for the BJP

Shivraj Singh Chouhan. AFP

Senior leaders including former chief minister Kailash Joshi warned the party against the perils -- a social crisis in the villages. Despite realising that many beneficiaries of the government’s magnanimity were bartering away cheaper grains for alcohol, the government stuck to the promise. On being sworn in for the third time in succession Chief Minister Shivraj Singh impressed his party leaders and public by signing the order for the cheaper grains right on the dais. On the same occasion he reiterated the government’s resolve against allowing new liquor vends in the state.
The government tripped over its resolution in just three weeks. When the cabinet cleared Chouhan’s proposal to allow sale of Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) through 250 country liquor vends, several eyebrows went up in unison. Sobriety was, however, restored in just two days after retribution from within the party and from the opposition. Chouhan told the media that his heart prevailed over his head and forced him to rescind the decision.

During the cabinet meeting three ministers Gopal Bhargav, Babulal Gaur, Gaurishankar Shejwar dissented. Other senior leaders like former chief minister Uma Bharati, former union minister Prahlad Patel who also runs anti-addiction programmes and Maya Singh, who left the Parliament to join the state assembly, also spoke up against the decision. Chouhan overruled all those objections. Chouhan found himself isolated over his argument that the change in policy could fetch an additional excise revenue between Rs 150 and 200 crore.

He had his cheerleaders. Urban development minister Kailash Vijayvargiya said opening up IMFL sales in the villages would check casualties from spurious liquor. Even more brazen was Industries and Commerce minister Yashodhara Raje who said since the Centre was not extending enough funds to the state Chouhan was justified in generating funds for the state’s development.

Though the Congress also has had great affinity for liquor mafiosi, it jumped at the opportunity of alleging a secret understanding between the BJP and the liquor barons.

"In the last five years, the BJP regime gave fresh licenses to 250 country liquor shops. Now suddenly, it has opened the door for IMFL companies to sell their products through country liquor shops throughout the state, '' said a spokesperson of the Congress.

One hasn’t seen Chouhan roll back decisions in such hurry over criticism by others -- least from the Congress. But he found himself cramped as the RSS representatives put their foot down and forced the government to rethink over the decision during the party’s state executive meeting. The parent organisation was not averse to the idea of revenue generation, but it didn’t want the party being questioned over moral issues during the Lok Sabha elections a couple of months later.

So heady is the whiff of lucre from liquor that very few governments can walk straight on sniffing it. In an earlier stint under Chouhan’s mentor, Sundarlal Patwa in the 1990s, the BJP had faced a similar embarrassment after allowing liquor contractors a foothold in the tribal regions of Madhya Pradesh. The tribes who hitherto brewed their own liquor were forced to buy it from contractors. Accompanied by police and excise officials the liquor contractors harassed the tribal population in Sarguja, Bastar and regions bordering Orissa forcing them to buy liquor at 400 per cent higher price. This led to lot of violence in the area. Having invested large money the contractors would stop at nothing to recover their money. The BJP ended up paying for it in the subsequent elections and the Naxalites seized the opportunity to consolidate their presence in Bastar. The Patwa government had taken the measure ostensibly to check alcoholism among tribal population.

Chouhan’s change of heart seems to have prevented an ugly controversy and silenced the opposition for now. Voices from within the party like that of Prahlad Patel have for long advised the government against turning the voters into lotus eaters.

 

 

 

 

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