Aditya Sinha: Achhe din? We have happy hours!
Near my neighbourhood where the Gurgaon-Faridabad highway crosses Sunset Boulevard is what Google Maps calls Kachra Chowk, where stands a makeshift liquor vend (one of 175 in Gurugram) run by a local political muscleman called ‘Pehelwan’ something-or-other. In the evenings, SUVs crowd around in an atmosphere of rough seediness. I avoid this liquor vend, preferring the shop in Qutb Plaza, where I can longingly gaze at the single malt whiskeys and imported wines before I finally pay for my bottle of Old Monk. Pehelwan’s liquor vend is very much representative of Gurugram, as is the ‘desi’ vend (152 of these in Gurugram) at the other end of our stretch of the highway, under where the Delhi Metro and Gurgaon’s Rapid Metro meet, inside Sikanderpur village, home to Bihari and Northeastern migrants. Once in a blue moon, I visit one of Gurugram’s 200 bars (including 36-odd microbreweries), forever filled with corporate youngsters, either raising their glass in toast or their phones for a selfie. Drinking may be a social evil, but it is also a social palliative. Often it’s only after I’ve had a peg or two that it becomes clear that Arnab and his guests have also downed a peg or two. And it's only after my head starts to spin that I see Twitter for what it truly is: projectile vomiting.
Residents rush to buy country liquor in Faridabad, after the state of Haryana abandoned its two-year-long experiment of prohibition in 1998. Pic/AFP
If it weren’t for the drinking, there would be no prohibition, and if it weren’t for prohibition, cops wouldn’t have any extra income. Three years ago, I drove my two dogs and a cat from Mumbai to Delhi, and just outside Ahmedabad, the cops stopped us and found in the trunk, among my suitcases and pet-paraphernalia, a near-empty bottle of vile Indian whiskey. They waved a penalty booklet and mouthed some homilies about prohibition in Gujarat, but I played my ‘journalist’s card’ and drove off to Rajasthan.
Since last month, Bihar is under prohibition. And next week, Tamil Nadu is likely to join the ranks of the liquor-free. (I know, I know: if you want, you can procure liquor in Gujarat, or in Kashmir, or even in Pakistan. But that only signals that you’re among the blessed.) Whether it is Chief Minister Amma or CM Nitish Kumar, like the next US President Hillary Clinton, they are playing the ‘women’s card’ by imposing prohibition. In Bihar the women are happy — no more squandered incomes, no more wife-beatings, no more domestic rape. You can bet that more than half the voters approve of prohibition: women+hypocrites (which we Make in India in abundance).
Yes-yes, revenue lost. Bihar will leave an uncovered revenue gap of R2,500 crore; a free marketer groaned that Tamil Nadu will lose R30,000 crore, wondering how CM Amma would pay for all the sops she’s announced. But if revenue is such a holy cow, then why not have another sin tax — on prostitution or on licensed opium dens? I’m sure none of the voters, who’ve been promised scooters for women and laptops for high-schoolers, will have a beef with where she brings in alternative revenue. Politicians always find a way to squeeze us dry.
State governments, however, have a habit of back-tracking; after a couple of years they fold under pressure and abandon prohibition. CM Amma herself abandoned her arrack-ban in the 1990s; Chandrababu Naidu abandoned Andhra Pradesh’s prohibition in the mid-90s; and even here in Haryana, Bansi Lal abandoned it after two years. He lost the next elections.
In Bihar, prohibition has driven up marijuana sales. Which isn’t so bad. Just imagine how benign Prime Minister Narendra Modi must appear to a dopehead, speaking Hindi in Tamil Nadu. Or Rahul Gandhi wandering around UP with his dopey smile, wondering what he’s got himself into: makes perfect sense to the man with a bong. Yet I feel that without alcohol’s assistance, it is difficult to make sense of who is actually guilty in the VVIP helicopter deal — is it the former Air Force chief, a former NDA NSA, or some big-newspaper journalist? My only certainty is that the money wasted on helicopters for our VVIP scoundrels could be better utilised closing the revenue gap in Bihar or Tamil Nadu.
So I am thankful to Pehelwan and his nearby liquor vend. It is an eye-sore, no doubt, and it does attract the unsavoury element. But if it weren’t for his kind of entrepreneur, you’d never get to see drunken Amitabh Bachchan chasing a cockroach in that 1970s movie. Or you’d never get to read the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, available this week (I wrote a story in it). Instead, you’d have to wander over to a Starbucks, with its clean toilets and free WiFi and its harmless music, where men wear Bermudas instead of guns; and simply wait for yet another paternalistic governmental intervention to fail.
Senior journalist Aditya Sinha is a contributor to the anthology House Spirit: Drinking in India, to be published in May. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org